Bille August's long-awaited period epic, "Jerusalem," is an immaculately crafted saga at every level that only fitfully springs to emotional life. Never boring but rarely developing a dramatic head of steam to match its geographical scope, this yarn based on the real-life emigration of a bunch of messianic Swedes to Palestine will be a tough theatrical sell outside Scandinavia, where the work exists in a longer miniseries version.

Bille August’s long-awaited period epic, “Jerusalem,” is an immaculately crafted saga at every level that only fitfully springs to emotional life. Never boring but rarely developing a dramatic head of steam to match its geographical scope, this yarn based on the real-life emigration of a bunch of messianic Swedes to Palestine will be a tough theatrical sell outside Scandinavia, where the work exists in a longer miniseries version.

In its bigscreen cut, August’s adaptation of Selma Lagerlof’s novel (already filmed by Victor Sjostrom in 1918) rolls along in bite-size pieces that cram in a lot of plot but often leave one wanting a fuller meal. There’s no shortage of excellent actors and fine performances here; what’s missing is a sustained cinematic sweep to truly engage audiences in the complex fabric of emotions at work.

After an intro sketching the death of “Big Ingmar,” the de facto leader of a small rural community, film focuses on his son, also named Ingmar, who’s put in care of another family by his elder sister, Karin (Pernilla August). Flash forward a few years, and the grown-up Ingmar (Ulf Friberg) has fallen for the family’s beautiful blond daughter, Gertrud (Maria Bonnevie), but has to leave to earn enough money to buy back his father’s farm, from which he’s been effectively dispossessed by Karin.

Strange events start to happen in the village: An al fresco dance is disrupted by an apocalyptic storm, and the same night Karin is mysteriously paralyzed in the legs. Subsequently, the local mission hall, set up years earlier by Gertrud’s father to strengthen Christian faith, is afflicted by a bad attack of democracy amongst the superstitious parishioners.

The local burghers are easy prey for Hellgum (Sven-Bertil Taube), a darkly charismatic preacher who arrives and quickly dominates the community, tearing families apart with his brand of hellfire hectoring. Karin is converted when she recovers use of her legs after a visit by Hellgum.

When Ingmar returns home, he finds Gertrud on the brink of conversion, too. After he’s forced to marry rich man’s daughter Barbro (Lena Endre) to regain his farm, the devastated Gertrud signs up with Hellgum on an expedition to Palestine , where an American woman (Olympia Dukakis) has set up a community to await the Second Coming. Karin is also among the group.

Film has a natural intermission at the 91-minute mark, with the pilgrims leaving their backwoods community for an unknown future. Second part has them arriving three months later in the Holy Land, where their ideals are slowly tested in the hot, parched region and whither Ingmar travels to try to reconcile with Gertrud after Barbro releases him from their marriage.

With its softer, ocher-tinged look and dramatically different landscapes, the second seg has an initially liberating feel after the stern drama back in Scandinavia. But it’s in this section, ironically, that the movie starts to hit the dramatic reefs.

The interesting idea of a group of Swedes slowly being thawed out (but then decimated by disease) in their “earthly paradise” in the sun is soon crowded out by ongoing plot developments which involve cross-cutting back to Sweden to follow the marriage of Ingmar and Barbro, and in Palestine introducing several new characters (including Dukakis as the sect head) and a love story between Gertrud and a young admirer, Gabriel.

One of these late-coming strands Ingmar and Barbro’s marriage does develop a dynamic of its own, largely thanks to Endre’s fine perf as the wife. But Dukakis’ Yank and other members of the Palestine sect come across as mere jottings in the margin of a larger story. As a whole, the movie’s second half heightens the overall feel of characters being shuffled around a board to fulfill dramatic requirements rather than driving the plot on their own terms. Only in the final reel, as several protagonists return to Sweden, does August’s pic really stir the emotions and attain some epic resonance.

At an individual performance level, things are almost perfect down the line. Pernilla August (helmer’s wife) is excellent in the difficult role of Karin, creating a sympathetic personality out of unlikely material; she’s well contrasted with the younger, wide-eyed Bonnevie as Gertrud, who moves smoothly from sexual to religious fervor. On the distaff side, however, both are eclipsed by Endre as Ingmar’s wife, a mature, dignified performance that packs a lot into a little screen time.

In a role that Thommy Berggren might have played back in the ’60s, Friberg is solid but largely blank as Ingmar. Taube is tops as the hellfire Hellgum, and his disappearance early in second half takes a lot of energy out of the picture. Veteran Max von Sydow appears briefly as an aging preacher, to passing effect.

Cinematography is precise and good-looking, though less sharp in some of the Palestine scenes. Stefan Nilsson’s low-key scoring is decorative rather than pointing up the emotion often missing onscreen.

Jerusalem

Swedish

Production

A Svensk Filmindustri release (in Sweden) of an SVT Drama production, in association with Svensk Filmindustri (Sweden)/Metronome Prods., Schibsted Film, Danish Broadcasting Corp. (Denmark)/Marko Rohr Prods., YLE (Finland)/NRK-Drama (Norway)/RUV-TV (Iceland), and with participation of Nordic Film & TV-Fund. (International sales: The Sales Co., London.) Produced by Ingrid Dahlberg. Co-producer, Mads Egmont Christensen. Directed, written by Bille August, based on the novel by Selma Lagerlof.

Crew

Camera (color), Jorgen Persson; editor, Janus Billeskov-Jansen; music, Stefan Nilsson; production design, Anna Asp; costume design, Ann-Margret Fyregard; sound (Dolby), Paul Jyrala, Niels Arild Nielsen. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 13, 1996. Running time: 171 MIN.

With

Gertrud - Maria Bonnevie
Ingmar - Ulf Friberg
Karin - Pernilla August
Barbro - Lena Endre
Hellgum - Sven-Bertil Taube
Priest - Max von Sydow
Mrs. Gordon - Olympia Dukakis
(Swedish and English dialogue)
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