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On Movies: Slower pacing doesn't equal boring

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 2, 2009 - A student in a film appreciation class I'm teaching wrote of a recent spy thriller, "like all British movies, it's slow." While I wouldn't exactly attribute slowness to all movies directed by Brits - Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" is as fast as a bullet train - I acknowledge her point.

Films from Europe, those not hyped up by contemporary American influences, aren't afraid to take their time, unspooling at what may appear to action-flick devotees as a sluggish pace, in the process probing deeper and revealing more than any slam-bang speed-fest. Two movies opening April 3 are good examples of European movies that are in no hurry to get from beginning to end, and both are well worth the time.

Everlasting Moments

The message emerges organically from the medium in "Everlasting Moments," Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell's stunningly filmed saga of a poor young woman of minimal education whose eyes are slowly opened to the world when she begins taking pictures. Troell's love of the photographed image, resplendent in such previous movies of epic sweep as "The Emigrants" and "The New Land," is demonstrated luminously in both the theme and the execution of his absorbing new movie.

"Everlasting Moments" spans several decades in provincial Sweden, although the larger world of the early 20th century intrudes from time to time: Workers are shipped in from England to break a strike; kings visit; men go off to the Great War; a giant dirigible slides overhead like some metallic beast of prey; horse-drawn wagons are slowly replaced by trucks and automobiles.

"Everlasting Moments" - definitely not be confused with "Precious Moments" - is the story of a woman named Maria (Maria Heiskanen) who works at home as a seamstress to supplement the income of her strapping laborer husband (Mikael Persbrandt). They have a growing family that eventually reaches seven children. For years, Maria has nothing in her life but child-care, cooking for her family and housework. Then her husband begins going on binges and spending nights with a barmaid. When he is drunk, he abuses Maria, and at one point she calls the police and he ends up in jail.

One day, with no food in the larder, Maria takes a camera that she had won at a raffle years before to a photo shop to pawn or sell.

The photographer who runs the shop finds her charming, and convinces her to keep the camera and use it. Slowly, she begins taking pictures of people and local scenes, and some of her photographs - such as one of a dead girl laid out for burial - are arresting. Very slowly, Maria's neighbors discover her photographs and become customers for her portraits. She learns to be independent from her husband, much to his dismay and, sometimes, demonstrative fury. And yet, somehow, she continues to love him.

"Everlasting Moments," based on a true story told by the real Maria's daughter, is rich with life and given range by the depth of its not-so-simple characters and by Troell's loving eye for the details of daily life almost a century ago. It concludes at an unexpected point as a radiant celebration of lives redeemed.

Cherry Blossoms

German filmmaker Doris Dorrie is a devotee of the films of Yasujiro Ozu, the Japanese director who, to vastly oversimplify the matter, was the yin to Akira Kurosawa's yang. Ozu's films, which often focus on domestic life, were notably slow and contemplative. "When I had watched them in film school," Dorrie recalled, "I thought they were too slow. Now I believe that I was just too impatient and too young for his films."

Dorrie's latest film, "Cherry Blossoms," is based on Ozu's classic, "Tokyo Story." In both films, an old couple goes to a big city to visit their children, who are too busy to pay much attention to them. Both films deal with issues of generational change, impermanence and death.

The first half of "Cherry Blossoms," which could have been shorter, is set in Germany. An elderly German couple, after the failure of their visit with two of their children who live in Berlin, seem at loose ends, baffled by life, confused as to what to do next. Then one of them dies, and the other goes to Tokyo, where another son lives.

From the point that we are overwhelmed with the beauty of the blooming cherry blossoms in a large Tokyo park, the movie wastes not a moment. (It helps that much of the Tokyo half of the movie is in English, used as a common language by Japanese and Europeans.) The tone becomes, at times, light and bantering, and at others, quite serious, as it looks at the core truths of the human condition. Central to the story and the theme is the eerie Japanese expressionist dance called Butoh, which Dorrie says is "about portraying light and shadow, birth and death, coming into being and ceasing to exist."

Eventually, by the shores of a lake reflecting the majestic Mount Fuji, a kind of reunion of the elderly couple takes place. The extended, bittersweet lyricism of the final scenes is quite lovely.

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.

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