Of Horses and Men
Directed by Benedikt Erlingsson
March 11–17 at MoMA
Directed by Ragnar Bragason
March 18, 20 at Scandinavia House;
Opens March 20 at Cinema Village
The Icelandic cinema began, after a few one-offs, in 1979, with the formation of the Icelandic Film Fund, and its first major production, Land and Sons, an adaptation of Indriði Þorsteinsson’s novel about a young man who sells the family farm. Two Icelandic films from 2013, both playing in New York City this month, continue to work through Iceland’s ambivalent relationship with a rural heritage long since altered by the mass urban migration of WWII and after, but still heavily present in the national self-image, especially in a current economy based around the saleability of nature and a millennium-long history of hardy homesteaders.
Benedikt Erlingsson’s Of Horses and Men, a compendium of vignettes with an overlapping cast of neighboring horse farmers and their animals, peaks, as it were, in its first scene, with the social humiliation of Ingvar E. Sigurðsson, the country’s most respected actor, in a gag featuring some all-time animal-wrangling degree-of-difficulty. As the film continues, photogenic, pint-sized Icelandic horses (mascots of the country’s new tourism-based economy) remain on equal footing with their human scene partners—though that’s not to say that the horses are personified. The film’s Icelandic title, Hross í oss, translates as “horse in us,” though both the noun and pronoun are archaic words out of use in modern Icelandic. Indeed, the tales the film spins are both bawdy, in their focus on animalistic lusts—more than one species is seen to copulate outdoors, gruntingly—and at times pleasingly legendary, with incidents of retributive blindness, unexpected visions, and land disputes as vicious as in the times of the Sagas. The film gets laughs at backwards folkways—blind clear-booze drunkenness, naked lust, general venality—but the humor is also nostalgic in its passed-down broadness. The final shot is a frankly elegiac picture of community ritual.
More oblique, but more searing, as a meditation on country life, is Ragnar Bragason’s Metalhead. Ragnar is a city mouse now: his previous credits include Children and Parents, Mike Leigh-influenced ensemble films made with the alternative theater group Vesturport, and the TV sitcom Nightshift and its subsequent spin-offs, with comedian-turned-Reykjavík mayor Jón Gnarr. Here, though, he returns to the eternal theme of growing up as Getting Out, shooting on farms tucked between glaciers and ocean on the island’s south coast, in a wintry palette evocative of thrifty, clenched emotion. Newcomer Thora Bjorg Helga plays Hera, scarred at an early age by her older brother’s accidental death, and grown into the titular corpse-painted wild child, taking late-night drunk joyrides on tractors and railing against the rectitude of grange-hall dances and Sundays at a church a half-dozen pews deep. (The film is set around the 1980s and 90s, but, as in Of Horses and Men, the cosy farmhouse interiors have a free-floating later-ish-20th-century timelessness.) With its treatment of rustic Nordic isolation and boredom, misfit adolescence and trauma beyond words, this would be a totally metal movie even if Slayer and Priest did not become Hera’s headphone sanctuary and the voice of her anger against God. Structurally, Metalhead is more mixtape than album. But individual scenes, of Hera blasting on her dead brother’s guitar in the barn, or of her battles of wills with the hip local priest and her repressed parents, are mounted with simple life-or-death conviction in the writing, performance and, auðvitað, soundtrack, and play like majestic, doomy riffs.