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Exploring The Mundane and The Spiritual

A Review of the Documentary ‘Beyond Strength’

 

Iceland, the land of irresistible landscapes and breathtaking natural wonders, is also home for the world’s strongest men. In his first documentary, Icelandic director Baldvin Z (Baldvin Zophoníasson) tells the story of one of them named Reynir Örn Leósson, who lived a relatively short but action-packed life. Beyond Strength, screened at Nordisk Panorama, explores the highways and the service roads in Reynir’s life, while painting a sorrowful portray of a man succeeding and failing in turns. Following a linear and painstakingly constructed structure, the mundane and the spiritual battle for screen time to convey the director’s personal admiration for his subject, and consequently to debunk the myths around him.

Baldvin Z’s reasons for making the documentary revealed in the establishing scenes, and his personal tone prevails from the beginning to the end. The archival footage, the talking heads interviews, and the stunning animation, highlighting some essential details and adding supernatural aspects to the main character, comprise an audiovisual elegy of Reynir Örn Leósson (1939–1982). During his 43 years, Reynir was fighting with the elements – constantly proving that he was above physical laws and strength had nothing to do with literally being a huge man. His idol was Hungarian-born magician Harry Houdini, and throughout his life, he pulled off several tests set for himself resulting in others’ awakening scepticism about him and his accomplishments. If someone’s terrestrial journey can be compared to a roller-coaster ride, it’s Reynir’s – both emotionally, physically and mentally.

The Icelandic director’s bias slowly but steadily vanishes, however, his presence and memories remain a crucial part of the narrative gradually moving forward to the spiritual. The snappy title Beyond Strength works on multiple levels drawing attention to personal tragedies, hardships, beliefs, feelings and senses. For a better understanding, every sequence starts with an insert implying what’s coming next, what aspect of Reynir’s life is scrutinised in more detail. And some fairly mysterious – or even celestial – elements always find their way into the story, and they demand more and more space, as the story gets unfolded. All the simplistic answers must be denied and a more open-minded and imaginative approach should be implemented to be able to travel between worlds while sitting in a dark room full of strangers with different mindsets.

Beyond Strength’s distinctive yet sometimes intangible atmosphere takes great advantage of the interviewees’ characteristic personalities while letting them speak freely. This might be Baldvin Z’s first attempt to direct a documentary, but he manages to discuss something specific yet generating a more layered image of Iceland. Although the country pushes a fairly progressive agenda, in recent years, a few film-makers have embarked on a path to show the darkness of this tiny island surrounded by the Atlantic ocean. Through Reynir Örn Leósson’s story, the default and socially accepted boundaries of human life, including thoughts on physical and mental strengths, can become part of the public discourse, and it can raise more questions about what success and decay actually means – in both Iceland and the world.

Barbara Majsa

Barbara is a journalist, editor and film critic. She usually does interviews with film-makers, artists, designers, and writes about cinema, design and books.