crash course in norse

i love festivals. so many chances to see films i wouldn't otherwise get to see. i especially love smaller festivals with a specific focus. i can't think of many better ways to spend a day than immersed in the idiosyncratic little universes that make up a genre or combing through the cinematic underbrush of a culture i seldom get to interact with. i woke up this morning, opened the paper and one of those opportunities fell right into my lap. turns out, today had a pleasant surprise in store for me in the form of the austin nordic film fest.

it's a modest undertaking, with ten shorts and three features, all taking place in one day. don't let that fool you, though. it has both quality and variety. with entries from denmark, sweden, finland, iceland and norway, it features multiple award winners and a number of genres and styles. i arrived in time for the third, and final, block of films and am still kicking myself for having missed the luminous, stop motion animation short veeti and the beanstalk (2009). it was one of the finnish entries, directed by susanna kotilainen and it has all the requisite magic any good kids movie ought to. here's enough to get the idea:

the films i did see, however, were not disappointing. the program started with the icelandic short epic fail (2009) by ragnar agnarsson.

it's an amusing short about a good natured, but not exactly successful, young man whose ambition extends only as far as the end of his boom microphone. he is an avid collector of sound but you are given the distinct impression that nothing more will come of it than being the proud owner of the largest collection of samples of tires on rain-slicked reykjavik streets in the whole wide world. his bike with all of his equipment on it goes missing when he steps into a pizzeria for lunch setting off a chain of misunderstandings and misadventures that leave you thinking about the kindness of strangers and the power of coincidence. all in all, a decent start. i might have enjoyed this a little more were it not marred by technical difficulties that threatened to make its title more than a little ironic. the interrupted flow is a tough thing for a 13 minute film to recover from.

next was another icelandic short, helena stefánsdóttir's anna (2007).

it plays a little like the dark side of amélie (2001). imagine if audrey tautou's tics and compulsions weren't whimsical and charming but instead were uncontrollable and bordered on frightening. our title character is beset by a disorder that manifests itself by compelling her to imitate the actions of everyone she meets, adding each new blown kiss, sneeze, smile, cry and scream into an ever-building loop that makes going to the market for sugar an almost unbearable ordeal. her syndrome is so severe that her infatuation with her handsome neighbor doesn't stand a chance and so she climbs out onto the ledge. fortunately, he climbs out with her. his caring gesture momentarily threatens to be the thing that will unwittingly lead to her demise until, in the final moments, he truly understands her and, crisis averted, romance is given space to bloom among peals of laughter that could be genuine or could just be her disorder again. a nice, ambiguous note to end on and the program picks up steam.

norway was the source of the feature presentation in this block, erik poppe's troubled water (2008).

you guys know how much i love the cold and dark of a theater. imagine how much i love the cold and dark when it's geographical, when it's so much a part of a cultural identity that it seeps into your bones. nordic films have always appealed to me on this gut level. the intimate cold and the quiet dark that gave us the likes of carl theodor dreyer and ingmar bergman has produced another wonderful filmmaker in erik poppe. this film takes those nordic cinematic mainstays, penitence and grief (and penitential grief), and makes something fresh and lovely out of them. it tells the story of jan thomas who, as a kid, committed a stupid crime that resulted in the death of a young boy. he has served his time and, freshly paroled and shedding his first name to avoid recognition, has found a job as a church organist. his tentative exploration of his new life, his only freedom since he has become an adult, finds him alternately seeking solace in music and comfort in a budding relationship with the church's pastor. this new life is not without its obstacles, though, as the pastor is a single mother whose son bears a striking resemblance to the boy whose death thomas is responsible for. complicating matters, the dead boy's mother recognizes thomas when she brings her class to the church for a field trip. what the film does best is convey a sense of dread and inevitability. it seldom telegraphs its punches, instead relying on gentle, persistent suggestion. maybe thomas' rehabilitation isn't as complete as we might want to believe as we are subtly shown he still carries the potential for violence. perhaps the striped shirts worn by the dead boy and his live counterpart are meant to hint to us that the specter of this crime has had everyone involved imprisoned since the day he disappeared. certainly there are parallels between the baptismal font and the river where the crime occurred, forgiveness and a new life being chief among them. in a wonderfully effective structural trick, the film takes us right up to the point where the new youngster in thomas' life disappears and then retreats to the very beginning of the story, this time telling it from the grieving mother's point of view, showing us every point at which their lives had intersected after his release as she becomes aware of and observes thomas, becoming slightly more unstable, though not wholly mad or unreasonable, throughout. we are left just like she was, lost, pondering the fate of a child, in limbo for almost the last third of the film. these twin paths of unrelenting grief and guilt are a couple of heavyweight performances and poppe keeps everything brilliantly minimal all around them. nothing intrudes on their necessary cycle of redemption and finding hope in love and maternal forgiveness. and i find a certain satisfaction in the implicit suggestion that, in at least thomas' case, it may still not be enough. it would have been the easy thing to do to wrap it up in a nice, tidy package. i'm glad that's not the nordic thing to do.

if you'd like to dig a little further into the films from tonight's closing block and others like them, here are some handy links:

film movement

the icelandic film centre

the swedish film institute

the norwegian film institute

the danish film institute

the finnish film foundation

thanks to the festival organizers. that was a great lineup today and a wonderful evening of viewing. looking forward to next year already.

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