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Film Review: Jerusalem - I expected more from the promised land

Jerusalem

Directed by Bille August

Written by Bille August, based on the novel by Selma Lagerlf.

Starring Maria Bonnevie, Ulf Friberg, Lena Endre, Pernilla August, Sven-Bertil Taube, Reine Brynolfsson, Olympia Dukakis, Max von Sydow

By Teresa Esser
Staff Reporter

Jerusalem is a gorgeous and fascinating film that proves the adage: Life is what happens to you as you're making other plans. Set in turn-of-the-century Sweden and Palestine, Jeruasalem traces the lives of Ingmar (Ulf Friberg) and Gertrud (Maria Bonnevie) as they sort out complicated questions of love, faith, and filial duty.

Friberg is stellar in his role as Ingmar Ingmarsson, the first-born son of a clan that has ruled a small Swedish parish for ages. Cheated out of his rightful inheritance by a jealous brother-in-law, Ingmar leaves his fiancee, Gertrud, and goes off to work at the family's distant sawmill. While he labors at the task of turning trees into boards, the local townspeople grow desperate for a new church leader. Into this spiritual vacuum walks the American evangelist Hellgum, a messianic fire-and-brimstone preacher who can cure psychosomatic paraplegia by the laying on of his hands. Once Hellgum has recruited Ingmar's sister Karin, he takes over her farm and sets up operations in the Ingmarsson living room.

As Ingmar labors diligently in the woods, Hellgum convinces a number of the villagers to join his cult. "There are 30 of us living in a house in Chicago," Hellgum explains. "We share everything. Soon we shall build a new Jerusalem."

The other villagers don't take kindly to Hellgum's habit of discouraging his followers from associating with those outside the cult, especially when one woman grows ill and needs to see a doctor. After this medical request is refused and the woman succumbs to her illness, preacher Hellgum is forced to leave the village.

The central conflict of the movie emerges when Hellgum invites his followers to leave Sweden and to build their New Jerusalem in Palestine.

"Perhaps God deems me unworthy," says one parishioner. "He thinks I love our fields and pastures too much."

"Nonsense," says his wife. "Listen harder! He calls you, too."

The strength of the movie lies in exchanges like these, which help to make the outrageous plot twists more believable. In the end, some two dozen parishioners follow Hellgum to the promised land.

One excellent scene involves the parishioner's reactions to a summer rainstorm. After a youth dance is interrupted by a surprise downpour, the guilty dancers huddle together and pray fervently. "Oh Lord," they cry, "we meant no harm!"

Another outstanding scene involves Karin's decision to auction off the family farm in order to give the proceeds to the cult. Ingmar, who has promised his dead father that he will take over the management of the farm, feels obligated to remain on the land regardless of whatever this will cost.

Meanwhile, his true love Gertrud is making preparations to follow her personal Jesus to the promised land. Gertrud is convinced that she has seen Jesus on more than one occasion, and that he approves of her decision to travel to Palestine. "Do you want to know a secret?" she asks Gabriel, a fellow Hellgumite. "Jesus is coming!"

"Today?" Gabriel asks.

"No, tomorrow," she replies.

The film moves by leaps and bounds, transporting viewers from the icy rivers and pastoral fields of Sweden to the arid, rocky landscape of Palestine. Some of those who have sold everything and followed Hellgum to the promised land are disappointed to find themselves sleeping on stark cots in the single-sex bedrooms provided by the colony. The genders remain segregated even at mealtimes, where "Mother" (Olympia Dukakis) presides over the serving of bread and soup.

The three-hour film, which was selected as Sweden's official Oscar entry, was based on the novel by Selma Lagerlf.