COPENHAGEN, Denmark -- ''Il Capitano'' is Swedish director Jan Troell
's return from years of documentary work to the fact-based fiction that brought him worldwide fame and theatrical distribution in 1971-73 with ''The Emigrants'' and ''The New Land'' (later TV-serialized in the United States as ''The Emigrant Saga''), and Hollywood assignments (''Zandy's Bride, '' 1974, and ''Hurricane, '' 1979).
Troell, with playwright Per Olov Enquist
(of Broadway reknown for Strindberg-inspired ''Night of the Tribades, '' 1975), has fashioned a highly personal look at the acts, circumstance and backgrounds of a murder by gun and knife of three utterly innocent victims in a churchyard in Northern Sweden on July 3, 1988.
''Il Capitano'' has brought Cannes and Berlin festival representatives to Stockholm seeking Troell's film as a 1992 competition entry.
There are plenty of good reasons for this, and they herald triumphs for the film on the festival circuit as well as on the art cinema circuit everywhere. An added advantage: the dialog is so sparse, it will require a minimum of subtitling.
Combining edge-of-the-seat suspense with fluid cinematic movement, the film focuses on the two killers, a young vagrant styling himself ''Il Capitano'' and his even younger girlfriend. Through beautiful Northern Swedish landscapes of forests, rivers and villages, the film manages to avoid cheap thrills and gore as well as any hint of finger-pointing and social-psychologizing.
There are flashbacks to explain how the youngsters originally met, he a school dropout from a broken home, she from a culturally refined family. But mostly, Jari and Minna are seen as two individual personalities, drawn to each other by an inner sense of a destiny to be shared.
In one stolen car after another, the couple journey south from their native Finland on a thieving expedition that has hippiedom capital Amsterdam as its rather abstract goal. En route, they pick up rabbits as back-seat pets, drink and make love, stumble upon a shotgun and ammo and kill, without hesitation or remorse, a father, mother and son who unexpectedly confront them in the remote countryside.
The actual killings are seen only in an oblique way, but this adds to rather than subtracts from the suspense at a time when the audience has just settled down to a grudging liking of the two headstrong, yet powerless pawns of fate. Of the murdered family we are told only briefly in a police reconstruction. Throughout, Troell is a master cinematographer as well as director and editor.
''Il Capitano'' is every bit as strong in thriller melodrama values as ''Bonnie & Clyde, '' with which it will inevitably be compared. But the tension of Troell's film is heightened by the subdued way in which it is told rather than through explosions of visually shocking violence.
The shocks may be analyzed by some as a rumble of the volcano of our times.
The playing in the leads by near-amateurs Antti Reini
and Maria Heisanen is strongly moving and totally convincing as their young faces reflect alternately hot tempers and soft submission, and as it gets more and more doubtful whether he or she is the real ''capitano'' steering their actions.
The real-life murderers were captured by police on a train passing through Denmark. They were brought to trial and sentenced to life-terms in Sweden. While ''Il Capitano'' was in production, a media debate accused Troell of ''exploitation.'' As the finished film stands, it is the general Swedish consensus that no tragedy could have been told with greater artistic beauty and strength.
Pan Film Sweden, Polyphon Germany
Director-cinematographer-editor Jan Troell
Producer Goran Zetterberg
Screenplay Per Olov Enquist
Music Lars Akerlund, Sebastian Oberg
Starring: Maria Heiskanen
, Antti Reini
Running time -- 110 minutes
No MPAA rating
(c) The Hollywood Reporter