by CJ Johnson

The Norwegian International Film Festival has been running since 1973, and based permanently in the maritime, deeply picturesque city of Haugesund, on the South Western coast of this spectacular country, since 1987.

I was fortunate to be invited to be on this year’s FIPRESCI Jury – FIPRESCI being the International Federation of Film Critics – and tasked, along with two other jurors, with awarding our prize for best Nordic film. There were 16 contenders, and it’s pleasing to report that based on this strong batch of features, Nordic cinema seems to be in very good shape, featuring diverse stories across a whole spectrum of genres told, for the most part, with a great deal of craft, vitality and originality. Very little of what I saw could be considered remotely formulaic.

My festival slate got off to a sublime start with Michael Noer’s suspenseful, supremely well-crafted morality tale Before The Frost. Set in rural 1850s Denmark, it stars a magnificent Jesper Christensen as Jens, an aging farmer facing a ruined crop and rapidly diminishing prospects, who makes some increasingly dubious – and dangerous – decisions in order to keep food on the table and his family together. The film is impeccable in its period detail, offering an eye-opening window on the strange intricacies of Danish pre-industrial rural life, including the massive role played by the local Church, where the Deacon, it seems, also operated as the town cop, judge and mayor. Noer uses a handheld camera to keep up with the script’s relentless pace – there’s a lot of drama packed into the film’s one hour and forty-four minutes – and saves flourishes such as music for when the action starts getting really heavy. The result is realistic, aided by superb naturalistic acting from the entire cast, but also thrilling. Merchant Ivory this is not.

The Birdcatcher’s Son and The Unpromised Land were both small features with big ideas. The former, shot on the Faroe Islands, tells a deeply engaging and intriguing tale cribbed from a true story from the island’s history sometime in the 1800s. The acting, particularly from Livia Millhagen, is sublime. Meanwhile, The Unpromised Land is pure, naked naturalism,  documentary-like in its unrestrained depiction of the growing friendship between two girls, one Romani and one local, in a small town in Sweden. Like the films of established realists Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, it tells a small story to tell a big one: the problem of assimilation – or lack of it – in Sweden.

Day three brought the first adult comedy, Out of Tune, about a disgraced company director going to prison for, one assumes, some sort of fraud or other financial misdeed; once inside, he propels himself into a battle for control of the prison’s choir. The film was gently humorous but most intriguing for me was its depiction of the sheer civility of the Danish prison system, where the guards treat the prisoners with dignity and respect and are actively engaged in their rehabilitation and mental health.

Much more serious was Iceland’s Let Me Fall, an epic portrait of two teenage girls and their addictions. Clocking in at over two hours – unusual for this Festival – the film follows the leads from their earliest taste of drugs when they’re fifteen through to them at thirty-five (and played by different actresses, rather than aging anyone up or down). The film is unflinching and resolutely grim, joining the likes of Panic In Needle Park and Requiem For A Dream, especially in its final scenes; it is also tremendously acted. As with Out of Tune, what may strike non-Nordic audiences the most is how lovingly and respectfully one of the girls’ parents deal with her increasing addiction. Dignity is shown to prisoners and junkies in the Great North.

Also from Iceland was the staggering A White, White Day, Hlynur Pálmason’s follow-up to his acclaimed and award-winning debut Winter Brothers. Featuring a once-in-a-lifetime role for the great Ingvar Sigurdsson, who nails every moment as a widowed grandfather building a house for his daughter and granddaughter while quietly losing his mind. Some of the technical attributes of the film are mind-blowing, and Pálmason is unafraid to stick his neck out with extremely bold directorial choices.

Denmark’s Heavy Load was self-evidently the most mainstream film in competition and the only one that even nodded to formulaic scriptwriting. Written by and starring brothers Magnus and Emil Millang, directed by Magnus, this road movie has a clear hook: two Danish brothers (also called Emil and Magnus!) have to travel to Spain to retrieve their dead father’s corpse, only to end up transporting it stuffed grimly into an oversized roof box on their tiny rented smart car. The screenplay is tight as a drum and the film absolutely delights even as it hits very familiar notes.

Finally, Denmark’s Queen of Hearts features superb Danish actress Trine Dyrholm as a woman who makes a bad sexual decision with escalating consequences. Like many of the best films at the Festival, this was full of moral complexity, although as it went on it increasingly turned into a thriller; tense as hell, with plenty of twists and turns; a variation on Fatal Attraction for a very different era.

At the end, we awarded our prize to Before The Frost, with this statement: “We found the selection of films this year to be of a very high standard. Our short list contained films which all presented deep ethical and particularly moral challenges. Our final winner was not only a powerful morality play, it was thrillingly told, with excellent craft, and also presented an exotic milieu with a modern urgency. It also features a towering performance for a mature actor. It is Before The Frost.”

Many of these films will find Australian release, or appear at the Scandinavian Film Festival, on World Movies, or Netflix. They are clearly worth seeking out.


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