Desolate sights

Finding art in frozen climes.

ICE AND SNOW don't seem that promising a landscape for cinema; although, strictly speaking, Iceland has plenty more than that to offer. Tundra, hot springs, rustic old churches, weather-beaten faces, dried fish, a deeply imbedded love of music, and big lambent skies surprisingly turn out to be well suited to film. With a population of only 270,000 (in a space about the size of California), the country is best known movie-wise for Bj� who recently won a Cannes prize for Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark. A former Danish colony isolated by location and language, it's a land whose stark but not barren landscape is both oppressive and inspirational to its filmmakers. Prominent among them is Fridrik Th�ridriksson, whose 1994 Cold Fever was a favorite at SIFF '96. He's represented by two titles in the six-picture Northern Lights omnibus series, which offers enterprising moviegoers a rare glimpse into a film culture related to both von Trier's avant-garde impulses and Ingmar Bergman's life-and-death traditionalism.

NORTHERN LIGHTS FESTIVAL

runs December 1-7 at Varsity

In Fridriksson's Oscar-nominated 1991 Children of Nature, the story of a septuagenarian couple escaping from a Reykjavik retirement home makes for pathos and deadpan humor. Fleeing to the fishing island idyll of their childhood, the two recall Thelma and Louise in their doomed yet triumphant flight. Their ultimate reconnection with rural beauty suggests a transcendence over both urbanization and death.

Movie Days (1994) is less profound by comparison, a nostalgic evocation of early '60s suburban life as seen through the eyes of a young boy. The Cold War is raging and American troops are stationed in Iceland, but it's the influence of our TV and movies that most affects the kid's perceptions. Yet in the lad's visit to country cousins, Fridriksson suggests that the demons and trolls of Icelandic sagas can still give Roy Rogers a run for his money. In both films, the color of the grass and sky powerfully convey mood and wonder.

TWO TITLES BY Hilmar Oddsson explore very different cultural and historical periods. His 1996 Tears of Stone is based on the life of modernist composer J�eifs, whose marriage to a German-Jewish pianist endangers his family during the early Nazi regime. Here, music plays a central role in a film that moves as deliberately as a symphony, as menace, resentment, and alienation build to a sad, muted crescendo. Frustrated in his career, Leifs joins a Nazi composers' league, which horrifies his wife despite his attempts to use his newfound political connections to help her and their daughters escape Germany. Throughout, we see the inspiration for his feverishly scrawled scores in flashbacks to the surf and light of his native land.

By contrast, in 1998's No Trace there's only one trip to the eerie, almost lunar countryside, and that's to dispose of an inconvenient body that spoils the fun of five twentysomethings. It's a mild black comedy indebted to Blood Simple and Shallow Grave, as the friends succumb to mutual suspicion about a blackmail plot triggered by compromising photos.

Honour of the House (2000) is based on a story by Nobel laureate Halld�axness, whose daughter adequately directs the picture with a nice eye for turn-of-the-century period detail. Two wealthy sisters in a remote fishing village struggle with their proud family's reputation. One's a progressive liberal, the other an airheaded snob. Both get put through the wringer in a sparse moral tale reminiscent of Ibsen.

Finally, unreviewed is this year's Pop in Reykjavik, which documents that city's eclectic, burgeoning rock scene. Last month, The New York Times called it "a hotbed of innovative music," specifically praising groups Gus Gus and Sigur Ros (both featured in Pop). In the same article, one band manager says that Iceland's unique connection to Nature inspires its music—a claim that its film directors would probably echo.

 
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