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.

Nebraska (2013)

Alexander Payne returns to his native Nebraska to charm us with eccentric characters who will warm your heart.

nebraskaUSA
4*

Director:
Alexander Payne

Screenwriter:
Bob Nelson

Director of Photography:
Phedon Papamichael

Running time: 115 minutes

The Midwest of Alexander Payne is at times reminiscent of the kind of America that Umberto Eco wrote about, although the former tends to focus on suggestive details rather than the vapid excess at the heart of the latter’s fascination with the country.

Early on in Payne’s Nebraska, there is a single shot of signs lined up next to each other in a small town, pointing to different religious establishments. We read the first two, and they seem like the kind of signs you would find anywhere else, but then the third sign, similar in appearance catches our attention: “Masonic Temple”.

After a delightful detour to Hawaii in The Descendants, Payne returns to his native Nebraska for his particular kind of comedy, which works because his comic timing is perfect. He evinces a kind of humour similar to that of Buster Keaton, or some of Jim Jarmusch’s films, which takes the deadpan very seriously and can take almost any subject that would make us uncomfortable and turn it into comedy suitable for anyone older than first grade.

Nebraska opens in Montana, hundreds of miles from the title state, where we meet septuagenarian Woody Grant, his thin white hair completely disheveled, as if he stuck his finger in an electric socket, on the side of the highway leading out of the city of Billings. He seems to be walking both aimlessly and determinedly. A policeman takes him back to his wife, who is angry with him for having left and probably also for not having stayed away.

Woody is either going senile or has Alzheimer’s disease (we never get a conclusive answer), but that is only one of his problems. Payne chose as his central character someone who ought to be unlikeable and who fits all the stereotypes of growing old: He has lost about as much of his hair as his mind, he is forgetful and simple-minded and always grumpy. And yet, in no small part thanks to a heart-warming performance by Bruce Dern who benefits from a very strong echoing board in his onscreen wife, played by June Squibb, we are always interested in and never scared by whatever foolhardiness he may be capable of.

He has his mind set on going to Nebraska because he got a “You’ve won $1 million” sweepstakes letter, and he wants to collect the money in person, conveniently overlooking the fine print that mentions the requirement of a subscription to multiple magazine titles.

After the third or fourth try he makes to undertake the 850-mile trek on foot, one of his two sons, David, relents and decides to take time off work to spend with his speedily aging father and prove to him the letter is a scam by driving to its distributor, Cornhusker Marketing, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Woody’s forgetfulness, hardness of hearing and stubbornness make for a ride that is probably more interesting for the viewer than for his poor son, who believes a dose of reality will shock his father out of the dream he clings to with such passion that he may do something stupid to make it real.

They eventually end up in Nebraska, but before they get to Lincoln, they stop over in the town where Woody grew up and where his family and many of his old acquaintances still reside: Hawthorne. The characters that populate this rural hamlet all grab our attention the moment we meet them, and Payne easily succeeds in drawing our attention to the beauty of some of these people even while we may snicker at their almost unbelievable goodness.

That is particularly true of the utterly sweet and fragile Peg Nagy, the editor of the local newspaper, The Hawthorne Republican, whose history with Woody goes back a long time and whose fondness for him nearly breaks our collective heart.

The decision to shoot Nebraska in black and white is an odd one, as the desaturated images appear to have had their life blood sucked out of them, and although we are not alienated from the film, the monochromatic images in combination with the steadily approaching winter we feel when we notice the frost on the grass next to the highway create a gloomy impression that is at odds with Payne’s more kindhearted approach to his characters.

The theme of growing old has been a theme in storytelling since time immemorial, but in Nebraska Payne has struck exactly the right tone to show us no matter how different people are, a life shared with others is one that those others will appreciate you for.

Viewed at the International Film Festival Bratislava 2013