Warm and lovely, Everlasting Moments is a late-career triumph for Swedish director Jan Troell, who first gained acclaim with his ’70s films The Emigrants and The New Land, both with Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann. Alternating between sepia-toned images that recall aged photographs and red-blasted darkroom scenes, the film is appropriately about the way photography transforms a woman’s life, but even more, it’s about allowing one’s inner self to transcend external limitations.
Set in Sweden in the early 20th century, Everlasting Moments tells the true story of Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen), a working class woman whose societal position seems utterly fixed. Maria is a plain woman. She works hard sewing and laundering and has a large family with husband Sigfrid (Mikael Persbrandt). He’s a drunk — loving in a bombastic way when he’s sober, but cruel when under the influence. He’s also a womanizer, barely trying to hide his multiple affairs from Maria.
Through it all, Maria remains faithful to her duties in a quiet way that resists turning into a kind of tortured martyrdom. She’s not hopeless, but she is resigned. Sigfrid loses his intermittent employment at the docks because of a workers’ strike, so Maria scrounges even harder. A camera — unused since she won it in a lottery years earlier — is perfect fodder for pawning, but when she takes it to a camera shop, the kindly owner Mr. Pedersen (Jesper Christensen) — who eventually comes to love her — convinces her to at least try it out.
As Maria begins to take photographs, a whole new world is opened up for her in which she is given a chance to see things differently. She has a gift — not technical expertise, but a way of seeing that translates well to photography.
Everlasting Moments isn’t as schematic as a simple plot summary makes it seem — woman’s life is bad, she discovers photography, woman’s life opens up to wondrous possibilities. The victories are small for Maria, whose life is beset with heartache, mostly at the hands of her increasingly violent husband. For Maria, her art doesn’t necessarily make her life better, but it does allow her to see it in a different way. She may not have a vast change on her societal environment, but her small steps to break free from the boundaries of class and gender roles totally transform her life.