The accolades for "Pelle" extend well beyond the 1989 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Writer/director Billie August (whose other films include "The House of the Spirits" and the 1998 film adaptation of "Les Miserables") brought home a Palme D'Or at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival. Several film festivals and critics' associations additionally have acknowledged the special qualities of this film.
The following YouTube clip of the Classics "Pelle" trailer validates the numerous awards for the film and should make people with even terrible lives feel fortunate to not be in the shoes of our heroes.
This harshly realistic tale of Old World style life in rural 19th-century Denmark evokes strong thoughts of the 1995 Danish drama "Antonia's Line," which is the winner of the 1996 Academy Award for "Best Foreign Language Film." The similarities extend to Classics previously releasing "Line" on Blu-ray and Unreal TV reviewing it.
The titular lad is a pre-adolescent Swedish boy who is emigrating to Denmark with his 50-something widowed father Lasse, whom Max von Sydow seems born to play. This wonderful actor makes us feel the despair and other intense pain of this broken man.
Comparable to Willy Loman and countless other deluded souls from literature and films, Lasse arrives at a port in his new country with thoughts that the demand for his services allows him to be selective regarding his employment only to receive the analyses at the almost-literal slave market that he is too old and that Pelle is too young. This leads to desperate times that lead to the desperate measure of accepting a slave wages position at a farm where our conqueror and his father both toil long hard hours and share their room in a cow barn with chickens.
This reality coming after "Grapes of Wrath" style promises of roast pork with raisins and an economy that allows boys to play all day is the first of several upsetting incidents for Pelle.
Much of the film centers around the titular boy. A scene in which the downright cruel teen known as the Trainee traps Pelle in a creepy dark barn, orchestrates an attack that seems certain to end in gang rape, pulls the pants of a commando Pelle down to his ankles, literally whips his bare ass, and sends him stumbling still exposed into the yard only be have the other workers endlessly laugh provides a sense of the existence of this boy.
The other sources of distress for Pelle include horrific bullying at school and abuse by the foreman of the farm; sources of solace include a friendship with "aint' right" boy Rud, owning a single coin, and receiving a highly valued birthday gift.
Having Pelle and Lasse constantly surrounded by a carpet of cow dung only scrapes the surface of the symbolism in the film. The seasons have meaning, a castration is done with very clear intent, and a rescue attempt demonstrates an effort at redemption. This is not to mention the role of the sea and other elements in the film.
August does an excellent job portraying the above in the general setting of a harsh existence with a clear caste system. One aspect of the well-defined hierarchy is that the level above abuses the next level below; as the new peasants in town and (literally and figuratively) Swedish immigrants to boot, Pelle and his father are at the very bottom rung of this ladder.
A booklet that comes with the Classics release includes an insightful essay that expands on the themes of this review and adds new ones. Movie expert Peter Cowie provides the audio commentary.
Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Pelle" is strongly encouraged to email me; you alternatively can connect on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.