VERY FEW WORKS of popular culture make their characters' faith life the driving force of their narrative. The Swedish film Jerusalem has the ingredients of an epic love story set against a background of family conflicts over land. But each of the plot's twists and turns not only advances the melodrama, it also dramatizes its effect on the protagonists' walk with God.
Based on a celebrated, two-volume novel by Swedish writer Selma Lagerlof, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature, Jerusalem is adapted for the screen and directed by Swedish director Bille August, (Pelle the Conqueror and Smilla's Sense of Snow). Its story is inspired by the adventures of a real-life group of Swedes who moved to the Holy Land at the turn of the century.
Storm (Bjorn Granath), a school-teacher in the small Swedish mountain town of Ingmargaden in the 1890s, breaks with the pastor (Max von Sydow) of the local Protestant church and erects his own mission hall that he believes will be “a fortress against apostasy.” Influenced by turn-of-the-century apocalyptic fervor and the Book of Revelation, Storm is preparing himself and his small band of followers for the Second Coming.
The rest of the population also believes it's a time of portents and signs. The patriarch of the region's most prominent family, Ingmar, dies while saving a pair of children from a freak river accident. But before breathing his last, he bequeaths to his 10-year-old son, also named Ingmar, enough money to buy back the family farm from his elder daughter Karin (Pernilla August). However, Karin's drunken husband Elias steals the funds and, as if punished by God, dies in another freak accident.
When Karin decides to marry again, young Ingmar (Ulf Friberg) chooses to move in with Storm where he falls in love with the schoolteacher's beautiful daughter Gertrud (Maria Bonnevie). The young couple seem destined for a passionate romance. But while dancing together outdoors to an earthy Swedish folk-dance, a frightening summer storm disrupts the festivities, leading the villagers to believe that God is angry.
When confronted with moral choices, each opted for the way of
sacrifice and forgiveness over ego gratification.
Into this maelstrom of fearful piety walks the fiery, faith-healing preacher Hellgum (Sven Bertil-Taube), a former swindler who's now part of an apocalyptic religious sect headquartered in Chicago. He takes over the mission hall from Storm and, after curing Karin from a temporary paralysis, converts the Ingmarsson farm into a religious commune.
Young Ingmar has been working a family sawmill, hoping to earn enough money to marry Gertrud and buy back the farm. But his true love has also come under the sway of Hellgum so he engineers the preacher's expulsion from the family property.
The clever faith-healer turns this setback to his advantage, announcing that he's moving to Jerusalem where he says the second coming will take place. He asks the other commune members to sell all their possessions and follow him.
Karin auctions the Ingmarsson land to a wealthy farmer, who makes the property part of the dowry of his daughter Barbro (Lena Endre). Ingmar, remembering his father's deathbed wish for him to have the farm, dumps his true love Gertrud to marry Barbro. Gertrud, feeling angry and betrayed, is certain she's seen a vision of Jesus in the forest and takes it as a sign that she's to go with Hellgum to the Holy Land.
Ingmar and Gertrud, the star-crossed lovers, are now separated by marriage, a continent and a cult. The audience wonders: Will they ever get back together?
Jerusalem skillfully plays against these conventional expectations to reveal a deeper understanding of the meaning of love than its protagonists at first possess. Ingmar's marriage seems empty and cold. Barbro believes there's a curse on her family and that all her children will be born retarded and blind. She sees that Ingmar still cares for Gertrud and, in a self-sacrificing manner, encourages him to go to the Holy Land and rescue his true love.
In Jerusalem Hellgum is removed as spiritual leader and replaced by the cult's wealthy benefactor Mrs. Gordon (Olympia Dukakis). When illness strikes, Mrs. Gordon prohibits her followers from consulting a doctor and tries to cure them through faith-healing. She fails and many die.
When Ingmar arrives, Gertrud is reluctant to leave. Once again she believes she's had a vision of Jesus, this time walking the streets of Jerusalem. Ingmar tracks down the apparition, who turns out to be the leader of an ecstatic Sufi sect. The sect members attack the Swede, gravely wounding him.
Gertrud returns with the ailing Ingmar to Sweden. Accompanying them is Gabriel (Jan Mybrand) who's been with the commune since its earliest days and has long loved Gertrud.
Meanwhile Barbro has given birth to a healthy baby who's baptized in the Protestant church that the cult members had originally abandoned. Ingmar chooses to remain with his wife and their child instead of Gertrud, to whom Gabriel offers comfort.
The once star-crossed lovers have suffered in different ways, but when confronted with moral choices, each opted for the way of sacrifice and forgiveness over ego gratification. In the process they moved closer to God and his commandments about love even though it meant giving up each other.
Jerusalem is a rich tapestry of personal passions, religious fervor and attachment to the land that treats the spiritual journey of each character with rare respect.
John Prizer is based in Los Angeles.