To be brutally honest, this year’s festival had more than its fair share of clunkers – right from the very opener, Sara Johnsen’s Framing Mom, whose contrived plot and phony dramatics somehow fooled the Church jury into awarding it a cash prize. But since this fine publication is dedicated to spreading the good word about Nordic cinema, let’s focus on the positive. If there’s one thing that stood out among the strongest features screened this year, it was credibility: an unusual number of films were emotionally/socially truthful and featured believable performances and/or plausible plots.
Exhibit A was the obvious jury prize winner: Heartstone, easily the best film in competition. It follows Rúnar Rúnarsson’s Sparrows in painting a realistic picture of modern life in the Northeast region of Iceland but has a sense of understatement and a poetic sensibility all its own. The film is centred on a young boy struggling to assert himself in the absence of male role models, but gradually focuses on the kid and his best friend’s growing realisation that the latter is gay. Hints of melodrama are fully offset by nuances in performance, visual style and psychology. And writer-director Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson bookends the film with a rather touching metaphor involving fish, which is true to the local life the film depicts and plausibly incorporated in the story. This is a great advance on Guðmundsson’s celebrated short films and strikes another blow for sincere and mature Icelandic cinema.
Ásdís Thorodssen’s exemplary documentary We Are Still Here also centred on Iceland’s periphery: tiny Flateyri, a village in the north-west on the verge of collapse since the crisis hit the fishing industry, which is its main source of employment. Thorodssen, who shot interviews with many inhabitants over the course of several years, manages to offer both a sober, unsentimental account of life in the village and a level-headed explication of the political and economic forces that now keep it—and by extension much of the rest of rural Iceland—in perpetual uncertainty.
It’s been a good year for Icelandic cinema; the now famous Baltasar Kormákur presented what might be his best film yet. The Oath is a taut thriller about a surgeon (played by the director) desperate to protect his half-estranged daughter, who’s fallen under the spell of an unsavoury drug pusher. Obviously tailored for a Hollywood remake, it strains plausibility as it goes along, but it expertly creates tension, is very well acted, and neatly reflects specific Icelandic realities, which Kormákur underlines by creative use of aerial shots of the country’s stunning landscapes.
In a much more downbeat register, Peter Grönlund’s Drifters offered an impressive street-level view of the lives of addicts and otherwise marginalised people on the outskirts of Stockholm. Its blend of professional and ‘amateur’ performances is seamless, which means Malin Levano’s turn as the hustling protagonist, a first-class piece of method acting, is on equal footing with Jan Mattson’s role as a terrifying drug dealer, obviously drawn from his own life. If Drifters offers no narrative surprises and not much insight into the issues it presents, it’s never less than gripping. Grönlund is also mercifully wary of the shock tactics currently in vogue among European directors working in ‘realist’ mode: Drifters has its moments of brutality, but it’s free of cynicism and never wallows in cruelty for its own sake.
Andrius Blazevicius’ excellent The Saint was also rooted in urban realism (here, small-town Lithuania), but stood out for its humour and strong elements of the moral fable. It opens, intriguingly, with hand-held video footage of a man claiming to have seen Jesus at the foot of a dilapidated apartment building. The story revolves around a factory worker, married with the child, who loses his job and somewhat halfheartedly attempts to find a new one, preferring to spend his time bonding with his hairdresser and drinking with his buddies. To stave off boredom, his layabout best friend suggests they track down the man in the video from the opening scene, found on YouTube. Their efforts provide The Saint with some sense of intrigue, and when they eventually find him, the film gains a ‘spiritual’ dimension that considerably raises it above genre norms. Insofar as its indecisive/lazy protagonist—smartly played by Marius Repsys as a likeable fool—is a cypher for the current state of Lithuania, his redemption represents a glimmer of hope for the country’s future.
Juho Kuosmanen’s The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki had an even more lackadaisical antihero. It imagines the titular Finnish boxer, who in 1962 fought an American opponent for the World Featherweight Title, as a sap, reluctantly moulded into a would-be national hero by his coach, who desperately needs a victory. There are shades of the Coen brothers here: the contrast between Mäki’s failure to apply himself and the coach’s hopes of a win makes for some gently droll humour. For a period film, its style is also refreshingly offbeat; it’s shot (for the most part sumptuously) on 16mm in black-and-white. And while it’s not the type of film to dwell on the winner/loser psychology, it may well be the most realistic boxing biopic ever made.