Dec 3, 1997 at 12:00 am

Swedish director Bille August's Jerusalem is a rather lumpish, epic soap opera adapted from a turn-of-the-century novel by Nobel Prize-winner Selma Lagerlöf, which was inspired by the true story of a group of rural Swedes who broke from their mainstream Protestantism to join an American cult in the Holy Land. It's a heady mix of religious mania, climatic cruelty and ill-starred lovers crossed at every turn, high-minded on the face of it but pure Edna Ferber at its heart.

Already steeped in a religion nurtured (and partially spawned) by nature's vast indifference, the inhabitants of Ingmargaden are ripe for the plucking when a charismatic preacher called Hellgum (Sven-Bertil Taube) arrives one day and proclaims himself God's chosen spokesman. Soon the village is divided between the Hellgumians and the more traditional believers, with family members pitted against each other and, more crucially to the plot, two young lovers, Ingmar (Ulf Friberg) and Gertrud (Maria Bonnevie), finding themselves on opposite sides of the schism.

Hellgum convinces his followers that it's time to leave their sinful fellow Swedes, the upshot being that Gertrud finds herself installed in a Holy Land religious colony headed by the enigmatic Mrs. Gordon (Olympia Dukakis) while Ingmar, having made a marriage of convenience to maintain his farm, spends his days back home wandering the woods in a perpetual funk.

Jerusalem, as one might expect, turns out to be a disaster, hellishly hot and barely sanitary as the true believers start dropping like flies. So Gertrud bakes while Ingmar broods until, upon hearing that she has sunk into a serious dementia (a fine line having been crossed), he decides to set out for the colony to try to retrieve her.

August, whose previous picturesque adaptation was the much more successful Pelle the Conqueror (anchored as it was by an extraordinary Max Von Sydow performance), alternates striking visuals of frosty Sweden and festering Jerusalem with stoic, Bergmanesque scenes of domestic squabbling.

Though the topic of millennial cultism is broached, the real point of interest in this two-and-a-half hour old-fashioned entertainment lies in following the unlucky lovers on their twisty road to a hopefully happy conclusion.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].