This, the striking directorial debut of Sven Nykvist - formerly cinematographer for the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky and Woody Allen - is based on a true story and revolves around the fate of a starving couple, Helge (Skarsgard) and Elfrida (Frolmg), and their sick baby during the Swedish famine of the 1860s.
It opens with Helge, reduced to a dreamlike state of hunger and despair, killing an ox belonging to his boss. The couple struggle to live with their guilt, but eventually, under the stern brow of the local pastor (Bergman favourite Von Sydow), Helge confesses and is carted off to serve an exceptionally long prison sentence. Meanwhile, timid, faithful Elfrida finds herself selling her body to stay alive.
As a simple fable of wrongdoing and resolution this is beautifully told through the dignified performances from Skarsgard and Froling as the unhappy, haunted couple. But it goes deeper than that, painting a tragic picture of a shrinking rural society, torn between holding on to its old moral values and the acceptance of the terrible new order of poverty and famine for its underdogs. And it's all shot in Nykvist's distinctive style, with stark wintry exteriors, shadowy interiors and harsh greys for the prison in which Helge spends much of the film, taunted and berated by his fellow inmates. Much more than just another snowy Scandinavian tale, this infuses its bleakness with tenderness and compassion while remaining a million miles away from sentimentality.