PELLE THE CONQUEROR (Bille August, 1987)

Prosaic, pictorial rather than visually expressive, richly photographed in color by Jörgen Persson and beautifully acted by 12-year-old Pelle Hvenegaard in the title role (best young actor, European Film Awards), Pelle erobreren is based on the first of the four 1906-1910 novels by future communist Martin Andersen Nexø. His namesake, modeled on Nexø, is indeed the character with which Hvenegaard launched his ongoing acting career. Nexø, an added pseudonym, was the name of the town on the Danish island of Bornholm to which Martin Andersen moved with his family, from the slums of Copenhagen, in 1877.
     Directed by Bille August, winning his first Palme d’Or at Cannes (1991’s The Best Intentions, written by Ingmar Bergman, would bring August his second), Pelle eronreren begins in transit: Swedish immigrants crowd a boat to Bornholm in hopes of a better life toward the end of the nineteenth century. Once there, Lassefar, who is far from being young or strong, and son Pelle are the last ones to secure farm work. At the Kongstrup farm they are both treated disdainfully, in the case of the boy, even brutally. Lasse drinks; ambitious Pelle dreams—and finds his way to a job in the Kongstrup mansion. Pelle loves him, but his father is too broken by life to be any sort of positive guide for Pelle’s future. Earlier, a ranch hand had promised to take Pelle with him when he left for America—but didn’t. At film’s end, Pelle bravely takes off on his own.
     Regrettably, August seems more interested in telling a story than in analyzing the systemic political causes of Lasse’s defeatism. Too, despite a plethora of best actor prizes (Guldbagge, Bodil and European Film Awards, Robert Festival), Max von Sydow is not at his best as Lassefar.

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