On the 30th anniversary of the Oscar-winning Best Foreign Language Film (as well as its Cannes Film Festival Palme D’Or win), Pelle the Conqueror has been given a stellar 2K restoration and is being released into a handful of art-house theaters, which is the only acceptable way to view it in my estimation. It is also probably noteworthy to mention that the 30th anniversary restoration of Pelle the Conqueror is being released on Blu-ray next month.
Pelle the Conqueror is a masterwork of Swedish director, Billie August, who went on to make The Best Intentions, The House of Spirits, and Smilla’s Sense of Snow. The film stars Oscar nominee Max von Sydow and is an epic adaptation (co-written by August) of Martin Andersen Nexø’s novel. The story follows a widower named Lasse and his young son Pelle (Pelle Hvenegaard) who uproot themselves from their native Sweden at the turn of the 20th century in hopes of finding better work and more money on the Danish island of Bornholm. Once there, they run into all sorts of problems such as being treated like scum and paid near-slave wages to work on a farm by a brutal boss with an owner that is literally driving his wife insane with his adulterous actions.
The two-and-a-half-hour work presents us with series of incidents on the farm over the course of Pelle’s formative teenage years, during which he and his father make empty plans to save up enough money to run off to America eventually. But we come to realize early on the heartbreaking truth that Lasse is a man who is all talk and very little action, and as Pelle begins to realize this, he turns his attentions to more useful and forceful personalities on the farm, including those rare few workers who speak out against harsh treatment and low wages.
Pelle is also an observant youngster who becomes a favorite of the owner’s long-suffering wife, and he quickly learns that even the rich endure pain, albeit in different ways than the poor. He makes new friends, both young and old; acts as voyeur to many heated acts of lechery and genuine, star-crossed love; and sees the worst the human beings can do to each other. There’s a seemingly endless number of characters to explore here, but Pelle the Conqueror always brings us back to the father-son dynamic that is a constant source of both compassion and heartfelt disappointment. Even Lasse’s brief glimpses of hope for a better future that arise when he begins an illicit affair with a woman of modest means are dashed when her long-missing husband returns just as he Lasse and Pelle are about to move in with the woman.
Pelle the Conqueror has aged beautifully as both a story and a visual feast. Although the setting is rather modest and a veritable symphony of mud and other types of filth (seriously, you can almost smell the movie), there’s still something beautiful, almost otherworldly about the expansive farm. August has always been a personal favorite, and Pelle is where his true strengths were first put on full display. He captures vast stories through the eyes of a single, sympathetic character, and as a result, this unknown land becomes familiar and worthy of discovery of every story that comes out of it. The word masterpiece gets thrown around a bit too much in the film world, but Pelle the Conqueror meets the definition sublimely.
The film screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, April 22 at 5:15pm.