Volcano (2011)

Rúnar Rúnarsson’s heart-wrenching drama about a recent retiree whose life is turned upside down when his wife has a serious stroke is eerily similar to Michael Haneke’s Amour, which was released nearly two years later.

volcano-eldfjallIceland
4.5*

Director:
Rúnar Rúnarsson

Screenwriter:
Rúnar Rúnarsson

Director of Photography:
Sophia Olsson

Original title: Eldfjall

Running time: 100 minutes

The only time we see the tragic events inflicted on the population by the titular volcano is during the opening credits. During the rest of Icelandic director Rúnar Rúnarsson’s stunning and sensitive début feature, the tragedy is much more low-key, although no less heart-wrenching, than during those opening minutes (archive footage shows scenes of people fleeing at the time of the island’s most famous eruption) set to the soaring sounds of a choir – an approach the director would repeat in his equally perceptive second feature, Sparrows.

On the whole, Volcano tells a story that is strikingly similar to Michael Haneke’s Amour (even including the emotionally shattering climax): When an elderly woman has a stroke, becomes paralysed and requires constant care, her husband, equally advanced in years, has to cope with the situation while awaiting his own inevitable demise. However, the notable difference is that Haneke was nearly the same age as his 70-something main characters. Rúnarsson, who was only in his early 30s, arguably has as firm a grasp on the subject matter as his Austrian counterpart, who had accumulated much more life and professional experience by the time he made his film two years later.

The main character is Hannes (Theodor Júlíusson), who has just entered retirement after nearly 40 years as a janitor at a school in Reykjavík. His marriage to Anna (Helga Jóhannsdóttir), the mother of his two children, is a ritualistic affair. She cooks, he complains about her cooking, and, even though they sleep next to each other, there is very little communication, understanding or obvious signs of love. That is, until Hannes’s boat takes on water, he has to be rescued, and he overhears his children asking themselves why their parents are even together. These scenes in the first half of the film are absolutely critical, as the unexpected tragedy that befalls Hannes is compounded by his realisation, only days earlier, that he has to start appreciating the woman who has remained by his side through good times and bad.

Unlike Amour, in which the stroke occurred very early on, Volcano‘s long setup establishes a fuller story with many failed relationships that ultimately nourishes much of the narrative in the second half. Because we understand the characters better, we are also more easily affected by their ups and down, and the sense of loss is far greater here than in Haneke’s film.

Júlíusson delivers a powerhouse performance as the cranky old man who recognises almost too late that he has missed out on life and now has to make up for his mistakes but has to do so alone. This intense loneliness is one that is felt in one of the first scenes, after Hannes has left the school for the last time (an awfully dreary goodbye occasion was thrown in his honour), when he drives home and we can spot tears in the corners of his eyes as he looks into the light of the setting sun. It is a loneliness he almost yields to when his boat takes on water and instead of doing all he can to bail the water out of the boat, he lights a cigarette and stares into the distance. But he resists the temptation to surrender, and this particular moment is a turning point that is fundamental to understanding his subsequent decision to care for his wife.

But the stroke leaves Anna in a state of near-constant, soul-crushing, slow-motion wailing, and Hannes tries to comfort her in vain because it is impossible to know whether she is trying to communicate, crying or producing sounds involuntarily as a result of the brain paralysis. In the meantime, he also has to deal with his children’s resentment over the many years during which he failed to show much interest in or enthusiasm for their development or well-being; it is to director Rúnarsson’s great credit that he successfully manages to shift our sympathies and allegiance from the children to the father during the course of the film.

Against all odds, Hannes finds strength and a sense for caring inside him that he didn’t know he had. The climax is a bit sudden and arrives without having laid any groundwork, but once it happens we fully understand why it has come to this, and the unbroken shot, bookended by a kiss, is absolutely beautiful.

The opening song is “Heyr himna smiður” (Hear, Heavenly Creator), a number whose history goes back some 800 years, and the performance by the Hallgrimskirkja’s Motett Choir is hypnotising.

Paris of the North (2015)

Subtle comedy set in far reaches of Iceland’s cold Westfjords has warm heart with likeable (but not entirely lovable) characters.

paris-of-the-northIceland
4*

Director:
Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson

Screenwriter:
Huldar Breiðfjörð

Director of Photography:
Magni Ágústsson

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: París Norðursins

“The one who travels the farthest knows the least”, the middle-aged Svanur tells the 37-year-old school teacher, Hugi (Björn Thors), who is a recovering alcoholic. The men live in a tiny, secluded village on the coast of north-western Iceland. Hugi copes with his addiction by attending weekly AA meetings with his sponsor, Svanur, and Svanur’s son, a deadbeat dad named Richard who plays in a band and spends most of the day smoking a bong. These meetings with three people who introduce themselves to each other again and again has an absurdist quality that sets the tone for much of the film. Also, that quotation is from Lao-Tzu and seems comically out of place in the vast, desolate landscape of the Westfjords peninsula.

All of this is about to be upended, however, when Hugi’s nomadic father, Veigar (Helgi Björnsson), phones him up out of the blue, and he is too reluctant to say no to him coming over from Reykjavik. But the very first glimpse we get of the father does not bode well. When he disembarks at the airport, he stands on the runway and lights up a cigarette. Also, he is carrying a large cage with a dog inside.

With Paris of the North, Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson, the director of the minimalist but hugely entertaining Either Way (Á annan veg) — remade as the equally engaging English-language Prince Avalanche, by David Gordon Green — has created another very compelling film whose characters are likeable but not entirely lovable. And it is this delicate balance, along with beautiful sequences of tracking shots showing Hugi running to the surprisingly haunting sounds of Richard’s band, that makes the film such a consistent pleasure.

Guarding over all of their quirky ways is Thorfinnur (Þorfinnur), a mountain that seems to rise up out of nothingness. But while the mountain never moves, many of the characters are uneasy with the place they have reached in life. Hugi is yearning for an ex-girlfriend, Helena, who has moved to Portugal. He is even learning Portuguese, but his phone conversations with Helena provide no reason for optimism. His father, Veigar, has spent some time in Thailand, buying and selling a bar and fathering a child in the process. Richard’s ex-wife, who used to date Hugi, is now flirting with Veigar. Everybody is unmoored, seemingly lost and adrift.

While Hugi, at least for a while, finds some company by kicking around a football with one of his students, the 10-year-old Albert (Haki Lorenzen), who not coincidentally is also Richard’s son, this clearly cannot be what his life will be like, and he recognises this all too well.

What he needs is an intervention of sorts, and not the one that AA sponsor Svanur wants to stage when he fears Hugi may have fallen off the wagon. He needs to make a life-changing decision, based not on his obsession with his former girlfriend but on something else – perhaps himself. It is a difficult journey, especially because everybody sees (and tells each other) how good he would be as a father, but being responsible in one aspect of one’s life does not mean everything is sorted out.

Paris of the North conveys both the beauty of the majestic Thorfinnur and the grubby streets of the former fishing village that lies next to it, and it shows characters straddling the line between the safety of mediocrity and the desperation of repetition. Love or lust often pose a challenge for the characters to make the right decision, but in the end, they do find an answer that works, one that may initially be sad but is emotionally satisfying and feels just right. Director Sigurðsson has a fine career ahead of him.

This is a slightly modified version of the writer’s review that first appeared in The Prague Post.

Sparrows (2015)

Rúnar Rúnarsson’s second feature film provides an emotionally resonant look at a teenage boy’s coming of age on Iceland’s majestic Westfjords peninsula.

sparrowsIceland
4*

Director:
Rúnar Rúnarsson

Screenwriter:
Rúnar Rúnarsson
Director of Photography:
Sophia Olsson

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: Þrestir

The first time we see the teenage Ari’s face, he is singing in a 28-boystrong choir in Reykjavik. The hall in which they are performing is stately and white as snow, and as the rays of sunlight hit his neck, we see what appear to be light tufts of down. This boy is still very much an innocent angel, and although he will mostly remain that way for the duration of the film, the situations he is confronted with become ever more complex as he gradually learns what it is to be a man.

Sparrows (Þrestir), Rúnar Rúnarsson’s second feature film, doesn’t cover the usual bases of a coming-of-age story. Yes, in this case there is a divorce, an absent father, his first sexual encounter and so forth, but Rúnarsson’s perceptive eye for teenage politics in general and the loneliness of an outsider in particular, as well as frequent dips into melancholia that wash over the pale, almost inexpressive face of the main character, make this a wonderful glimpse of one boy’s life in the wilderness.

Said wilderness is Iceland’s Westfjords, the country’s large peninsula to the northwest, where cliffs rise up sharply out of the ocean and appear to be much more imposing than their actual height would lead one to believe. The town where almost all of the action is set is the hamlet of Flateyri, although shots of nearby Bolungarvík also make up the fictional town here. Everyone here knows each other, but this familiarity is worlds removed from Ari’s former life in the capital with his mother, who has now upped and moved to Africa with her Danish husband.

In spite of the talk of hunting, the fighting and the sex, it ultimately becomes clear to Ari that being a man does not mean being macho. Being a man does not even mean one has to be responsible. However, it does entail dealing honestly with one’s own shortcomings, and that is why the film’s final image – an intimate hug between two men – is ultimately so incredibly powerful. On three occasions, the ethereal sounds of a piece of music by Kjartan Sveinsson lift Sparrows into the realm of the transcendental, flawlessly complementing the religious songs that Ari sings on multiple occasions, including, most strikingly, all alone inside a giant water tower. His solos bring almost heartbreaking calm to the turmoil that we know he is experiencing on the inside.

The film has countless small moments that are not highlighted but stand firm as milestones that line Ari’s journey towards maturity. While there will be a great deal of focus on a particularly traumatic scene late in the plot that will have the viewer’s stomach churning with empathy, other smaller incidents are equally important. Ari’s father, Gunnar, who has drowned his sorrows in alcohol since divorcing Ari’s mother, is ill-equipped to take car of his teenage son on the cusp of adulthood but out of sorts in this new landscape. Every moment that Ari considers unique is somehow spoiled by his father who has a similar moment with other characters, from having sex with the same woman to sharing a jacuzzi and even the house with too many other people.

Throughout the film, the towering cliffs – their feet often shrouded in mist – are ever-present, seemingly about to overwhelm the insignificant figures in the foreground. In fact, our very first impression of the area is a shot of the tiny airplane flying almost too close along the fjord walls before landing at the airport in Ísafjörður. This image is followed almost immediately by a shot of Ari waiting for his father, as he has done for much of his life, at the arrivals gate.

While main actor Atli Óskar Fjalarsson is very good, the only letdown is the scenes when he is supposed to express violent rage, which unfortunately comes across as somewhat contrived. This issue is perhaps understandable given that these moments turn very sharply away from the general trajectory of the plot and the overall restrained behaviour of the character. The quieter scenes, of which there are many, are much more convincing and more effective at drawing the viewer in close to Ari.

Sparrows are never seen nor spoken of, but the title most probably refers to the small birds because of their biblical meaning of being among the smallest and least valuable of animals while nonetheless still cared for and watched over by God. While this explanation is informative, it is unclear why the title takes the plural form.

Rams (2015)

Two elderly, taciturn sheep farmers who are also brothers have to work together in the face of a plague that hits their remote valley in northern Iceland.

hrutar-ramsIceland
4*

Director:
Grímur Hákonarson
Screenwriter:
Grímur Hákonarson
Director of Photography:
Sturla Brandth Grøvlen

Running time: 95 minutes

Original title: Hrútar

The first scene of Rams, a film from Iceland that falls squarely within the country’s canon of beautiful and always-eccentric films of late, tells it all: In a valley called Bárðardalur, in the north Icelandic countryside, Gudmundur (“Gummi”), an old, bearded farmer, finds a ram among his sheep that is not his. It has clearly strayed across the fence that separates his flock from that of his neighbour. He calls one of them by name, strokes its face and then proceeds to take a ram into his neighbour’s house in silent protest at the transgression that occurred.

The neighbour turns out to be his brother, the similarly bearded, equally aged Kristinn (“Kiddi”). The two have not spoken for 40 years, and although the reason for this is never explicitly stated, the resentment from both sides is clear as day. Their tense silence could very well have to do with the fact that Gummi’s father did not want Kiddi to inherit the farm, but he has stayed on because their mother insisted on it.

They are also big rivals, as their respective flocks share an esteemed bloodline, and at this year’s edition of the annual competition, Kiddi’s ram prevails by half a point over Gummi’s prized tup. Gummi is naturally crestfallen, but after closer inspection, he comes to believe that Kiddi’s ram, and therefore his flock and all other flocks in the area, might be suffering from scrapie, which would be fatal to both the sheep and the entire valley’s livelihood.

It is to be expected that the two brothers, facing the worst crisis in their extensive time on this Earth, will be pushed together to tackle this problem, but their distrust and general dislike of each other certainly makes this a protacted call to collaboration, whence the film’s running but subtle comedy. Despite their differences – Gummi is the serious one, while Kiddi is prone to hit the bottle on frequent occasions and more likely to behave like a fool – they are also dedicated to their sheep, which for these two lifelong bachelors are just like their own flesh and blood. When tragedy strikes their animals, it is like they see their own bloodline vanish in front of their eyes.

Their attachment to the animals also extends into a very warm relationship with Kiddi’s sheepdog, Sómi, which steals every scene in which he appears. Gummi uses him as a carrier pigeon to deliver handwritten messages to his brother whenever the rare occasion arises for them to communicate, and Sómi is almost giddy with anticipation to oblige.

This anthropomorphism is the logical extension of the affection afforded to the ovine creatures, and screenwriter-director Grímur Hákonarson’s decision to imbue his animals with just as much humanity as his two-legged characters adds enormous warmth to the film. And warmth is certainly welcome in this desolate valley that has been hit by disease and remains exposed to the rigours of the island’s thick white winters. The final scenes, set during a blizzard unleashed on the surroundings of Gummi and Kiddi’s farm, is particularly harsh, and at a screening I attended the wailing gusts of wind ont he soundtrack literally caused the ground in the theatre to vibrate. 

As a final point, even though it does not shed much light on our interpretation of the film, it is worth pointing out that the title can equally refer to the two brothers. The men’s interaction and communication at the very end are intimate and more related to instinct than purely rational thought.

Rams is about silence and a secret shared with a combination of naughty subversion of the rules and a determined desire to uphold to the status quo, even when the course of life cannot be turned back, and life itself can barely be resurrected. The two main characters, offbeat as they are, have affection for their animals and even for each other, and their presence in the story brings out both the comedy and the drama of the unexpected situation they are confronted with.

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015