Tuesday, January 10, 2017

1988 Winner, Pelle the Conqueror

Pelle the Conqueror

Director:  Billie August

Distributed by:  Svensk Filmindustri (Sweden) and Kærne Film (Denmark)

Released:  December 1987

Countries:  Denmark and Sweden

There are some films—some very good films—that after you finish watching, you walk away without a good idea in your head what the plot was.  You may tell someone else you liked the film, but if pressed to relay what it was about, you are unable to coherently give a satisfactory response, ending by saying something like, “Uh, it was pretty good.”  Pelle the Conqueror is one of these films.

Set sometime in the mid-1800’s, a Swedish father and son emigrate to Denmark to start over again after the death of the boy’s mother.  The father, Lasse, played by Max von Sydow, is rather old to have an 11-year old son
Pelle asking Lasse to come home
and is feeling his age.  Lasse thinks things may be better, but the only work, and place to live, he can find is on a farm as laborers.  The movie is mostly about the tough times they experience on the farm, included being treated by the Swedes as second-class citizens.  Lasse takes up with a woman whose husband is missing at sea, which is not looked at kindly by the townspeople, including the kids, who mistreat Pelle in school for having such a father.

If this doesn’t sound like much of a story, it’s because it isn’t.  This point is, mostly, that the father, Lasse, realizes he is stuck in life and has to make due with a possible widow and all the booze he can get his hands on.  It’s Pelle who has a shot to make it in life, as long as he can escape the life on the farm.  An older rebellious man working on the farm instills in him the dream to make it on his own, to live a life in which he isn’t told what to do, possibly in America.

"The power of Christ compels you!"
I can’t say I found the film entertaining really, but watching a masterful actor at his craft was what made this worth watching.  Von Sydow is truly an international star, having starred in the classic Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal from 1957, a Swedish film, famous for his game of chess with the Grim Reaper.  He also, of course, was the titular character in 1973’s The Exorcist.  But his role in this film earned him a Best Actor nomination, and rightfully so.  His relationship with Pelle is somewhat ambiguous—there is certainly love between them, and Lasse will sacrifice for him and protect him.  But the father was not quite admirable, as he struggles with who he is and what he wants for his son. 

The Title:  Pelle Erobreren or Pelle erövraren, depending on if you are looking at the Danish or Swedish title, respectively.  The old man calls Pelle that to keep his chin up. 
"You took your finger off!  No take-backs!"

The Culture:  Unexplained is why the father and son move from Sweden to Denmark.  Given the bleak, almost washed-out quality of the film, Denmark doesn’t seem like a great place to move to in 1850.

Agenda Danger:  The movie is based on the first part of a 1910 novel of the same name written by Martin Anderson Nexo.  The book deals with Pelle growing up and becoming a labor leader who embraces communism.  This film sets the table for the need for such reform, but this is not really a leftist film—it concentrates on the father/son relationship.

Best Picture that year: Rain Man

Rating:  Uh, it was pretty good.

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