There was a time when the designation "Academy Award nominee" for a foreign film suggested almost the opposite of what it suggests now. Although foreign films have always appealed to a rather small, niche market here in the United States, they've also offered a distinct counter option to our mainstream fare. Every country makes its share of crappy movies aimed at the lowest common denominator, but the ones deemed suitable for import here have tended to be those that were most ostentatiously against the American grain, which could always be interpreted as those that seemed most "adult." And so, in the late '40s and '50s and into the '60s, exemplary foreign films, the kind that would get honored by such official arbiters of taste as the Academy would be sexy or grim or narratively experimental, or some combination of all three.
But after our ratings system was installed in the late '60s and a rush of Vietnam-era frankness was allowed into our films, the tide began to turn. By the '80s and '90s, the type of foreign film to be plucked from the pile and honored by officialdom tended to represent values which had become less dominant in our free-for-all culture: traditional humanism, unironic drama, stately pace. It's a long cultural trip from the Academy's honoring of Bergman's "Through a Glass Darkly" (1961, a tale of incest and an abandoning God) and its shining of the light on "Under the Sun," a comfortably humane love story. It's what has become a typically conservative choice, a palliative for a host of establishment anxieties.
Which is not to suggest that "Under the Sun" is necessarily a bad film, just a rather cozy one. It's a Swedish production directed by Colin Nutley, a transplanted Englishman who has transplanted a very English short story -- H.E. Bates' "The Little Farm" -- from mid-'30s rural England to mid-'50s rural Sweden. It's a simple story in a lush setting of verdant fields and clear blue skies, of nature as a huge hand in whose palm the tribulations of tiny humanity unfold. A 40-ish farmer named Olof (Rolf Lassgard), who's lived alone since the death of his mother seven years earlier, places a newspaper ad for a housekeeper, though he's actually looking for a wife. To his surprise, the ad is answered by the rather glamorous Ellen (Helena Bergstrom, Nutley's wife), and one immediately expects that here is someone who's probably running away from something.
Olof, big and lumpish and still a virgin, is nearly tongue-tied by the new arrival -- and his best friend, a somewhat sinister young man named Erik (Johan Widerberg), is appalled. Erik, who has been to America, considers himself a cool guy, '50s-style, with his convertible, his transparent braggadocio and his budding, red-haired pompadour. Olaf, illiterate and apparently bad with figures, has come to rely on Erik in matters of money and business. We suspect that the younger man is scamming the older one, though his nature seems less villainous than elusive. It's a tribute to the film's subtlety that it takes a long time before it becomes clear to what extent Erik is a scoundrel and to what extent he's a friend.
Whatever his motivation, Erik sees Ellen as an interloper, someone who will take his pal and meal ticket away from him. He becomes especially worried when the relationship between Ellen and Olof develops into a genuine romance, and he becomes determined to unearth the secret past that he (and we) are sure she possesses.
"Under the Sun" succeeds in direct proportion to one's ability to fall in sync with its tentative pace and low-keyed mood. It's aided greatly by Lassgard's performance, which perfectly conveys Olof's imperfect kindness and the stunting effect of his years of loneliness. If this film had been made 30 years ago, Olof would probably hang himself in the end -- but that was then and now what he have is an ending which offers a great deal of satisfying if unrealistic hope.
Straight-faced romance has become more acceptable than alienation as a defining aspect of sophisticated adult fare, at least as far as the Academy is concerned. Having been given its blessing, "Under the Sun" is bound to move an audience in a reassuring way.