Friday, April 1, 2016

#797: The New Land

(Jan Troell, 1972)

The New Land picks up immediately where The Emigrants left off, yet it is a distinctly different movie. First off, it's significantly darker, with two specific sequences that are incredibly disturbing. Secondly, and more importantly, its momentum is on the decline, with a distinct backward-facing focus.

In an interview Treoll gave recently, he mentioned that there was one sequence in the book that convinced him to make the movies. It involved Ullmann's character remembering a doll she had dropped down a well in Sweden, and how the doll got more beautiful in her memory as the years went by. This sequence didn't end up in the movie after all, but he used this when developing this second movie (and during the swing scene at the beginning of The Emigrants, which is a sort of placeholder metaphor for the sequence, and one I have to think inspired Malick when he made Tree of Life and really all of his films). If The Emigrants was about beginnings and potential, The New Land is about endings and regrets. The final scene in which von Sydow is shown surrounded by his descendants in a picture just before his death will forever be etched in my memory, particularly the line about how his children no longer speak Swedish. This, to me, represents the heart of the film, the idea that all that has come before it means nothing.

The symbol Criterion chose for its cover backs this up. Here is a massive tree that has stood in Minnesota for generations, simply taken by von Sydow with a crude etching on the trunk. It is a uniquely American idea (At least in the West) and alternately inspiring and tragic. The tragedy is of course most stark in the sequence involving the American Indians who attempt to fight back against the injustice brought down on them, only to fail and be executed. But it's here in even the most innocent of encounters, like when von Sydow first meets his new neighbor.

The most noteworthy sequence in the film is surely the flashbacks to the brother's journey toward California, one of the most intense and jarring sequence I've seen from this era of filmmaking (surely Inarritu has seen this film many times). It makes you remember just how conscious of a filmmaker Troell is, something that is easy to overlook given his loose and seemingly instinctual style, but it's also simply a pleasure to watch because it's so rhythmic and visceral.

After six hours of this story, I felt genuinely sad and moved when this was over. I was a little worried about the length of this story, especially after having a mixed response to Here Is Your Life. But this is a great movie (it really should be considered one full movie, as it was sometimes shot concurrently and always intended as a full story), and one that was consistently engaging and surprising. I read one person's comment somewhere on the internet calling the film "the prequel to Fargo," and I like that characterization even though it belies the universality and scale of the film. This is a movie about the making of our country that fits nicely next to El Norte as a superior humanist depiction of the immigrant experience.

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