Directed by Sven Nykvist. Sweden. 1992.

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Temptation is too much for Helge Roos (Stellan Skarsgard) when he sees his employer's oxen grazing near his home. He is fearful for the future of his wife and baby who are starving in the freezing and poverty-stricken community of Smaland, in the winter of 1868. His unreflective response is to rush out and kill the Ox. Now they are able to gorge themselves on the rich meat, but like Helge’s fate the meat soon goes rotten. 

The crime disrupts the community and it becomes increasingly difficult for the Roos family to hide the evidence of their guilt. Indeed, even Helge and his wife Elfrida (Ewa Froling) argue between themselves and are separated by his moment of madness. 

Finally, the Pastor (Max Von Sydow) discovers the truth and takes Helge to the court. They both think he will be fairly punished and absolved, but the court imprisons him for life. From this point on the Pastor works to get Helge a lighter sentence. All of Helge's neighbours are willing to forgive him but the one person who has to provide his forgiveness, to enable his release, is his former employer. After several years he does relent. In the meantime Elfrida has an intimate liaison with a railway worker to keep herself and her child from starvation. On his arrival home Helge soon finds that his wife's extramarital affair provided them with another baby. After an initial outburst of anger he has to learn to forgive his wife -she was as much a victim of a fear of starvation as his employer or as he was when he killed the ox. 

This is based on a true story. Nykvist said that he "was profoundly moved by the story, partly because it affects me personally. All my close relatives come from Smaland and I have heard a lot about the years of struggle and difficult times." 

His enthusiasm obviously impressed producer Jean Doumanian whom he met through Woody Allen. Her previous production credits are for such TV programmes as the Dick Cavett Show and Saturday Night Live so this was a very different and challenging project. Having to work in a small, cold and isolated village must have been tough for her and the film crew, whether they were used to big-city life or not. 

The Ox is a powerful exploration of poverty, struggle, guilt, punishment and forgiveness. As might be expected of Sven Nykvist this is a beautiful film to watch. The story is simple and straightforward but it tells us much of relevance for today. Like the villagers in Smaland we have to come to terms with our own economic poverty and lack of resources, and we have to face up to our social responsibilities. A crime, however well motivated, only makes the pool of resources even emptier and grimier. The Ox has plenty of meat for mind, eye and soul. 

Nigel Watson
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