* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Bille August

With Max von Sydow, Pelle Hvenegaard, and Kristina Tornqvists.

Immigrant sagas are surefire cinematic material, or at least they ought to be. Immigrants are ordinary people cast into extraordinary circumstances, being forced to cope with a confounding and often unfriendly milieu, whether the case at hand happens to involve Guatemalans in Los Angeles (El norte), Italians in Switzerland (Bread and Chocolate), Moroccans in Munich (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), or Sicilians (The Godfather, Part II) or Jews (Hester Street) or anyone else you might care to name–including extraterrestrials–in New York. The reasons people, haplessly or hopefully, settle in foreign climes are stories in themselves, and, if well told on-screen, link characters (and audiences) to a welter of remote but powerful influences. Did the protagonists flee famine, death squads, or debt collectors? Were the characters simply enticed by the scent of money and adventure? What awaits them? Perhaps a Lower East Side tenement, a refugee camp, or a wilderness to tame.

Whatever the setting, immigrant tales can capture those peculiarly crucial moments when people are at both their weakest and their boldest, when they’re most vulnerable and enterprising, and when they have little to lose and even less with which to fight. In the startling alien terrain newcomers plunge into point-blank confrontation with their own values, and can draw fresh (if wavering) lines between abject submission and pragmatic adjustment to the locality. In short, they redefine themselves, their identities, for better or worse. Of course, immigration poses a severe test for proclaimed national values as well: there are limits to the tired, huddled masses yearning to breathe free who will do so legally.

The subject plainly bristles with dramatic possibilities. Make the immigrants an elderly Swedish laborer and his prepubescent son in rural, turn-of-the-century Denmark and a horde of intriguing themes and potential treatments beckons: the caustically critical realism of Bertolucci’s 1900, the comparatively restrained beauty of Olmi’s The Tree of the Wooden Clogs, the subtlety of Chabrol’s portrait of Breton peasant life in The Horse of Pride, and Terrence Malick’s visual hymn Days of Heaven with its wry child narrator. But the most conspicuous ancestors of director Bille August’s Pelle the Conqueror, starring Max von Sydow, are Jan Troell’s solemn celebrations of Scandinavian homesteading in America, The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1973), in which von Sydow also starred. Despite von Sydow’s craggy grace, half a dozen resplendent master shots, and a handful of teasingly portentous scenes, Pelle the Conqueror flounders through a series of colorful but static and disjointed scenes toward a dismal if credible conclusion. This elliptical epic, mystifyingly the winner of the 1988 Cannes Grand Prix, does not add up to the sum of its sometimes spectacular and as often preposterous parts. Despite a distinct lack of subtlety, the film never quite drives home whatever its point is.

Pelle the Conqueror opens at a bustling Danish port where Lasse Karlsson (von Sydow), a widower, and his son Pelle (Pelle Hvenegaard) disembark and begin immediately to hunt for employment. Operating under the quaint delusion that he is free to choose his terms of servitude, Lasse commences the day intent on “not taking the first offer” and concludes it by seizing the only offer he gets–with Pelle’s labor tossed in for free. Off they go in their employer’s cart across a misty northern landscape to Mr. Kongstrup’s estate, Stone Farm, which is populated by a Dickensian crew of characters who for some reason all exhibit a pronounced slow-wittedness. Maybe it’s the water; maybe it’s the script.

Kongstrup, who relishes his leisure, delegates abuse functions to a nasty manager and a peanut-brittle-brained trainee tyrant who gets his kicks from kicking Pelle. Lasse vows vengeance after Pelle suffers an especially mortifying assault, and the scene in which von Sydow, approaching the malicious trainee, shrinks from rage to placating calm within a few footsteps is a walk of art. “They can do anything they want,” Lasse laments; he doesn’t luxuriate in self-pity but neither will he put up even a sly fight.

The illiterate father feeds the boy’s dreams of “conquering” the world, and in the meantime encourages education. One day while inexpertly herding cattle Pelle meets Rud, a scrawny outcast boy, who swaps badly needed cowherding tips for a meal. Rather fleetingly, Pelle also strikes up acquaintances with the mild-tempered but defiant indentured worker Erik, Mrs. Kongstrup, a lonely childless woman prone to Gothic wailing within her huge house, and Anna (Kristina Tornqvists), a young woman in love with a man “above her station.” Curiously, Pelle displays very little warmth. Then an avalanche of implausibilities begins.

The Kongstrups are visited by a fetching blond niece who has nothing better to do than journey to this rustic wonderland from Copenhagen to hang out. But Mr. Kongstrup fancies himself a priapic Jedi knight, and indeed has impregnated half the women of childbearing age for 20 miles around. Among them is Rud’s massive mother, a retired Valkyrie who has made rather a habit of bellowing beneath the Kongstrups’ bedroom window for child-support money.

But when the seduced and abandoned niece tearfully flees, Mrs. Kongstrup cannot for the life of her figure out the sudden departure. When at last wifely revenge is exacted, it is anticlimactic in every sense.

When Erik finally attempts the justifiable homicide of the manager, it is thwarted by a shabby “coincidental” device that even Flash Gordon serial writers might have been ashamed to use. In another unlikely episode Pelle nobly diverts attention from Anna, who, though appearing to be nine and a half months along, continues concealing her pregnancy (Kongstrup is innocent) from a very tiny, very nosy community. Sure; you bet. In another moment from the Twilight Zone Pelle is rescued from drowning by one of the lads responsible for his getting wet in the first place. But apparently rescuer and rescuee avoid one another afterward, for there is no sign Pelle has any friends his age apart from the gangly Rud. Pelle is abused by schoolmates when word gets around that his father is dallying with a fisherman’s widow–well, aspiring widow. (Von Sydow and the “widow” engage in a delightfully frank courtship.) One moment Lasse is dejected because no woman wants an old man who is no longer “dangerous”; next moment, inexplicably, two worthy women are competing for him. The editing evidently left a lot missing, and even more amiss.

Pelle, one suspects, is a deeply disturbed lad. In a brilliantly perverse scene of a whipping of Rud, the director suggests that the “identification with the oppressor” syndrome is poisoning him. But at last, and rather unconvincingly, Pelle rejects an offer of the power to harm others as he has been harmed. In a scene of the most accomplished cruelty Pelle taunts Anna’s lover, who’s already crazed with guilt, telling the lover that he has seen the soul of his and Anna’s murdered infant “burning in the hills at night.” Next thing you know, there is a shipwreck in which the lover dies while saving other lives. No loose ends in this film.

Beneath the transparent, by-the-numbers schema there are potent elements at play in this work, but unfortunately they go unexplored. The script chooses not to probe the painful core of the boy’s soul. Instead it looks like an art film, sounds like an art film, moves like an art film, and has reaped an art film’s reward.