On the most superficial level, that life is mundane, and yet the closer we get to it, the more harrowing and transcendent it seems. (Maja acts as the film's narrator.) Her marriage to the abusive, alcoholic Sigfrid (Mikael Persbrandt) is the film's centerpiece. A burly dockworker, Sigfrid is her spiritual (and physical) opposite. (The relationship, in film terms, may owe something to the pairing of Anthony Quinn and Guilietta Masina in Fellini's "La Strada.") The couple's seven children are like watchful cherubs in a purgatory of their parents' own design. With uncomprehending eyes they observe the ardor and cruelties that alternate in the lives of Maria and Sigfrid. When life is good – when, for example, this poverty-stricken family, flush with good cheer, is gamboling at a lakeside picnic – we could be watching a rapturous evocation of domestic bliss. At the opposite extreme, we watch in horror along with the children as Sigfrid, enraged at Maria for some imagined slight, forces her to the ground at knifepoint. In a sequence like this, the true terror of marital abuse hits home.
Throughout it all, Maria emerges as a heroine of the most inexplicable and resolute sort. Although she glories in her children, she did not ask for this life. And although decorousness is almost a moral value with her, she does not often meekly acquiesce to Sigfrid's demands. She's no dishrag. When he attacks her, she puts him in prison for attempted murder, and she discovers new emotional possibilities in herself. With Sigfrid gone, Maria and the children are even more penurious, and yet it is as if a shroud has been lifted. The air seems brighter, numinous.
By this time we have been well prepared for Maria's transformation. Her photography, which began as a lark under the doting guidance of Sebastian (Jesper Christensen), the camera store owner, expands into a self-defining preoccupation – a passion (in spite of herself). It's also a source of much-needed income, but even her commissioned group pictures and Christmas portraits seem like emanations of something thrilling and profound within her. As it must be true of all great photographers, Maria at times seems dumbstruck by the beauty she has brought forth on film. (The images that emerge from nothingness in her darkroom have a blooming, magical efflorescence.) Without her entirely being aware of it, Maria intuits that her artistry is also her salvation.