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Heavy-handed style mars The Simple-Minded Murderer

Tearsheets: Bo Smith, Film Coordinator, Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston, MA 02115

Suggested headline:

DEN ENFALDIGE MORDAREN

[THE SIMPLE-MINDED MURDERER]

Written and directed by Hans Alfredson.

Starring Stellan Skarsgard, Hans

Alfredson, and Maria Johansson.

Plays tonight and next Friday

at the Museum of Fine Arts.

By MANAVENDRA K. THAKUR

IT'S EASY TO SEE WHY THIS FILM WAS A hit on the international festival circuit back in the early 1980s. The film tugs at the emotional heartstrings well enough that it adroitly creates audience sympathy for the plight of the main character. Writer-director Hans Alfredson elicits some excellent performances, which is largely responsible for creating the film's immediate appeal. Unfortunately, the acting is not enough to mask the heavy-handed symbolism and one-dimensional characterization that plagues the film.

The film tells the story of a young man named Sven (Stellan Skarsgard) who works as a laborer at a Swedish ranch in the 1930s. Disparaged as the village idiot because his hare-lip renders his speech largely incoherent, Sven has to suffer at the hands of his brutish taskmaster, H"oglund (played by Alfredson himself), a wealthy factory owner who wields considerable influence in the town. Unpaid, poorly fed, hounded from dawn to dusk, and housed in a grungy cow-shed, Sven's only respite comes from reading the Bible late at night and dreaming about the visitations of a choir of heavenly angels, who seem to hover and sing around him.

One day, Sven meets a wheelchair-bound girl named Anna Andersson (Maria Johansson), and they soon fall in love. Anna's parents (Per Myrberg and Lena Pia Bernhardsson) also take a liking to Sven, and for a time, Sven's miserable existence loses some its harsh edges. But H"oglund remains as cruel as ever, and when he humiliates Sven by forcing him to dress as a woman and dance suggestively in front a group of men, Sven musters his courage and runs away. Anna's parents take him in and give him refuge and solace. But H"oglund hasn't forgotten Sven, and he begins to harass Sven and the Anderssons to the point of setting fire to their pigsty. Sven, unable to control his rage when he realizes that H"oglund has ruined his prized motorcycle, exacts his revenge on H"oglund.

This plot could easily have served as the basis for a gritty working-class social conscience picture like the ones Warner Brothers produced in the 1930s. And indeed, Skarsgard's performance as Sven has a powerful and simple honesty that goes a long way toward making Sven's actions seem believable. Skarsgard's acting is made effective not by subtle mannerisms or high-precision repetition but by creating a full natural persona, complete with appropriate visual appearance and body movement. It's when Sven lumbers out of H"oglund's office, heaving and panting after exacting his revenge, that the full import of Skarsgard's remarkable performance becomes most apparent.

Unfortunately, the characterization is mostly one-dimensional. For example, H"oglund makes a good villain, but Alfredson goes too far and makes him a virtual tyrant who not only philanders with nubile young women but also hosts a convention of Swedish nationalists who sympathize with the Nazi movement. When Sven takes his revenge, it's difficult to feel anything but sympathy for Sven as he's tracked down by authorities.

This sort of drama is wrenching enough, but Alfredson decides to press the point with some unnecessary symbolism. When the Andersson's pigsty is set on fire, Alfredson superimposes H"oglund's baleful face on the rising smoke to symbolize the way H"oglund's spectre hangs over the harassment of the Anderssons. This might have been effective if underplayed properly, but instead it causes the film to unravel. And when Sven's vengeance is blessed by none other than three angels, the manipulation becomes too blatant for comfort. Alfredson seems intent on leaving no room for thought about whether Sven is actually justified in his revenge. Sven himself might justify his actions by claiming the angels' blessing, but Alfredson's shenanigans distance the viewer to the point that Sven's plight remains his own and not the viewer's.

The film's non-linear structure (the story is told through numerous flashbacks) helps enhance the religious and mystical tone of the film, and Alfredson's tendency to hold shots for several seconds works well, especially in the closing shot. Alfredson's failure is that he does not build on the film's strong points -- the acting and cinematic style -- enough to overcome the weak elements. On an immediate emotional level, the film does manage to effect a response, but on a more serious level, the film remains a problematic picture.