In January, a friend from the Scandinavian Heritage Foundation contacted me to let me know an Icelandic film would be playing in Portland as part of the 37th Annual Portland International Film Festival. SHF often sponsors Nordic films showing at the festival, and they were interested in doing so for this film if they could get a couple co-sponsors. So I set about using my best persuasive writing skills, and soon found out that the Icelandic National League of North America had generously agreed to co-sponsor the film.
PIFF has featured a number of Icelandic films over the years, including Nóí Albinóí, Reykjavík-Rotterdam, and Jar City. This year’s selection was Benedikt Erlingsson’s Hróss í oss (Of Horses and Men), Iceland’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award.
I worked with SHF to plan and promote a reception to be held before the film’s first showing on Saturday, February 8. There was going to be vínarterta and kleinur and good fellowship. Alas, it was not meant to be; Snowpocalypse* paralyzed the metro area and we were forced to cancel the reception. Sadly, we were unable to reschedule. However, the snow melted and I made it out to Portland to see the second showing of the film the next week. I met my new Icelandic friend Edda and her daughter-in-law Vanessa at CineMagic, a historic single-screen theater on Hawthorne. I admit I was a little surprised to see that the showing was sold out. Every single extremely uncomfortable vintage chair was filled.
The film is in Icelandic with English subtitles. There is so little dialogue, though, and the images are so striking, that I think the effect would be almost the same with no subtitles or even as a silent film.
Anyway, what did I think of the film? Consider this your SPOILER WARNING.
The Icelandic landscape? Just as beautiful as I expected.
The body count? Much higher than I expected.
I know it is typical of non-American films to have a more ambiguous tone and defy easy labels such as “comedy” and “drama.” And I know the official description of Hross í oss says, “Love and death become interlaced and with immense consequences.” But I didn’t expect quite so much death. I didn’t expect to go from laughter at a scene of ridiculous comedy one minute to horror at the sudden murder of a horse the next. I didn’t go to the theater expecting to see someone’s eyes bloodied by a barbed wire fence. And I definitely didn’t expect to see a man (who for no apparent reason became separated from a group of riders) get stuck in a snowstorm and forced to kill his horse, pull out its intestines by the fistful onto the snowy ground, and crawl inside the warm body cavity to survive.
I was telling a friend about the film’s bewildering tonal shifts and he remarked, “well, isn’t that more like real life?” Perhaps it is. I realize comedy and tragedy coexist in real life, and it’s not that I don’t think they should in art as well. Maybe if my expectations aligned more closely with the reality of the film, I would not have been so disappointed. But unfortunately, the film left a sour taste in my mouth.
I think I will stick with Brúðguminn.
Really, though, I am glad an Icelandic film was featured at the festival this year, and I am very thankful for the INL’s generous support. I wish Snowpocalypse hadn’t interfered with our reception plans, but I suppose that is just real life (minus the equine innards, thank goodness).
If you’re interested in judging the film for yourself, you can start by watching the trailer here. I believe the film is slated for wider release outside of Iceland this spring, but I’m guessing it will still be limited to major cities. Check Fandango or your local listings to see if it’s playing near you.
*Snowpocalypse (noun) – an occurrence of snow and/or other forms of frozen precipitation in the greater Portland area that results in widespread panic, closed schools, cessation of everyday activities, and near paralysis of local infrastructure. Alternate definition: Something that makes Canadians laugh.