As we near closer and closer to Oscar time, some foreign language films are about to get some much needed attention. While not part of the recently announced Oscar Best Foreign Language Film Award shortlist, films from nations like Latvia and, with their nominee Of Horses And Men, Iceland, some Oscar submissions are still making the rounds either in limited release or still on the festival circuit.
Speaking of this year’s Icelandic entry, the film joins a handful of other intriguing underseen films as films still making the festival rounds at the start of 2014, and hopefully people will get to catch up with what is one of the most interesting examples of cinematic tonal experimentation as the film world has seen in quite some time.
Ostensibly a series of short stories woven together as a collected novella of sorts, ranging from a comedic tale of neighborly voyeurism that turns in on itself as a stallion breaks free only to take a rider and his mare hostage, for lack of a better word, all the way to a relatively bleak tale involving a man stranded in a snowstorm, this is a deeply entrancing bit of emotional toying. From writer-director Benedikt Erlingsson the film is a decidedly icy and decidedly Icelandic blending of tones that itself is as dry and frigid as one would expect, and yet don’t short this film on just how beautiful it truly is, for that would be the worst of all possible follies.
Erlingsson is far and away the film’s biggest star. Aesthetically, the film is shockingly gorgeous. Each sequence opens with a beautiful shot of a horse, a loving close up of this majestic animal hinting at the almost spiritual connection that Erlingsson seems to have to these animals. While what follows is often hard to watch and in some instances hard to swallow emotionally, it never feels cheap or manipulative, instead the beautifully stayed aesthetic is meshed with the breathtaking Icelandic vistas on which this film takes place, becoming almost tableaux-like collections of shots. Each shot itself carries with it a great deal of emotion, be it richly deadpan comedy or some brooding faux-Tarr-esque sequences looking at the cruelty of fate and nature, each frame of this film is truly an important piece of narrative cinematic storytelling.
And the performances are just as good. While at its best a truly great ensemble picture, each performance is allowed a moment to truly stand out, be it Ingvar E. Sigurdsson, the film’s first main character, who is deliciously upper-crusty as the resident member of the 1%, in all of his pomp and circumstance. Opposite him are names like Charlotte Boving who plays Solveig, a woman who catchers his eye, and is the owner of the said stallion that sets up this breathlessly dead pan bit of comedy that makes up the first segment. I myself am particularly fond of this opening sequence not only as a great bit of perfectly toned comedy, but as a perfect introduction to the type of film this is. Beautifully shot in as stayed a manor as one would expect coming from the Icelandic film landscape, the sequence holds within it some really interesting character work, some social commentary in the neighbors and their deep seeded need to peer into the world of this well-to-do resident and then to end on such an absurd and rich bit of blue comedy is just a gutsy and truly rewarding bit of playfulness.
Itself a hint as to just what type of film one is dealing with here, this great and unsung bit of world cinema is one of early 2014’s most interesting foreign pictures. A superb blend of moods and tones, this Icelandic once-potential Oscar nominee is a gorgeous and brazen bit of storytelling that is as assured in its physical dark comedy as it is in its bleakest moments of human despair. Toss in great performances and you have an unsung darling that, if you have the chance to, needs to be seen to be believed.