Directed and co-written by Sven Nykvist, longtime cinematographer for Ingmar Bergman, THE OX boasts a superb cast of Bergman regulars and flawless cinematography. But the best efforts of Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson and Max von Sydow do little to relieve the film's mood of unmitigated
gloom. This grim 19th-century period piece feels at least twice as long as its 91-minute running time. The true story on which THE OX is based is one of devastating hardship during the great Swedish drought of the late 1860s, when droves emigrated to the US. In Smaland, a small village hard hit by
the famine, Helge (Stellan Skarsgard), a young tenant farmer, secretly kills one of the estate owner's remaining pair of oxen to feed his family through the long winter.
Justifiable as it might seem, it is a deceit which preys on his conscience. (A neighbor's casual remark about his appearance prompts him to tell his wife, "We can't eat anything today. We look too healthy.") Ultimately, the local vicar (von Sydow) finds out, implores the conscience-stricken Helge
to admit the crime, and assures him any censure would probably be mild. It isn't. The sentence "for unlawfully killing and eating an ox" is 40 strokes and a life of hard labor at one of Sweden's most notorious state prisons.
While Helge sweats out six merciless years until he's freed, his young wife Elfrida (Ewa Froling) has her own problems coping. With both her and their young daughter starving, Elfrida succumbs to the advances of an itinerant laborer in exchange for food. The brief encounter results in the birth of
a son which Helge discovers, to his fury, upon his return home. Eventually, he forgives her, and the film ends with a superimposed legend: "Helge & Elfrida had 8 children. They all behaved very well."
Nykvist endows THE OX with an exquisitely photographed sense of melancholia. The wretchedness is suspended only once, in a scene that is all the more memorable for its rarity: on his way home from prison, Helge encounters a vivacious country woman who persuades him to dance at a local gathering.
They're attracted to each other. She wants to kiss him--it would be his first bit of emotional, physical warmth in years. Instead, he tenderly caresses her with his eyes and gently touches her cheek before moving on. Not a word is spoken. The scene is brilliant--a rare, precious cinematic moment.
Nykvist's cast, including Ullmann, Josephson and von Sydow in secondary roles, is exceptional. Skarsgard, considered the most successful Swedish actor of his generation, is brilliant in the lead role. Though generally unknown in America (he played Capt. Tupolev, Sean Connery's ill-fated adversary
in HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER), he has received best actor awards at the Berlin Film Festival and twice at Stockholm's Guldabagge ceremony.
The film's origins are worth noting. Nykvist had always been intrigued by the story, first related to him by relatives from Smaland. His screenplay (co-written with editor Lass Summanen) was, in turn, based on a synopsis of the incident he had written in the mid-70s. Years later, through Woody
Allen, he met American TV producer Jean Doumanian ("Saturday Night Live") at a dinner party and told her the tale. According to the first-time director, she was immediately interested in producing it, even after he "explained it would have to be filmed in Swedish."
Nykvist fares poorly with his pacing, story development and use of music. The tale is fascinating and poignant, but the unrelenting gloom ultimately becomes wearisome. A little humor would have been most welcome.
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