Of Horses and Men

****1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Of Horses And Men won the Tridens and FIPRESCI prizes at Tallinn's Black Nights Film Festival
"Cinematographer Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson captures Iceland at its wildest and yet this is also a tale of intimacy without romanticism."

"Hrut took hold of a gold-inlaid halberd which King Harald Greycloak had given him... Eldgrim now tried to get away, and spurred his horse; and when Hrut saw this he raised his halberd and drove it between Eldgrim's shoulder blades so hard that the coat of mail burst open at the impact and the halberd came out through his chest. Eldgrim fell dead from his horse, as was only to be expected."

So reads a segment from Laxdaela Saga - a fairly typical example of the Icelandic tales, which sees horses, heroics, a fairly shocking level of violence and absurd humour intertwine. Benedikt Erlingsson taps into this spirit with his directorial debut, which takes a look at a present day community from the perspective of the horses they rely on. The animals may look small against the landscape but they are muscular and as quirky as those who wrangle them, running with their distinctive tölt action - which means one of their feet is always on the floor and which gives them an unusual gait, known for its speed and comfort for the rider (watch one doing it here).

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The film is told with the same level of bounce and rhythm, as we trot between stories - each beginning as a reflection within a different horse's eye. In one tale, we see how simple the act of desire between the animals is compared to the lust shared by a man (Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson) and a woman (Charlotte Bøving) and, later, how the pair may have more in common with the steeds than they thought. Elsewhere, there are tales of misfortune and bravery, some funny, some tragic but always with a horse.

Erlingsson's film - which is Iceland's nomination for the 2014 Oscars - is so connected to the environment and free of spirit that it bears no trace of his long career in theatre. Cinematographer Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson captures Iceland at its wildest and yet this is also a tale of intimacy without romanticism - the people in this isolated community may seem to be in the middle of nowhere, but the glint of their binoculars in the cold sunlight shows us that nothing is going unobserved. And though this may be a tiny community, the whole world is somehow represented, from alcohol-toting Russian sailors, to Swedish riders and even a Mexican visitor.

Striking images abound, from a horse fighting almost like a mythological mount, against the waves to try to catch a boat, to another lying dead in the snow and though they are never anthropomorphised, they are seen as vital companions to be wooed into a halter and treated with respect. All the while a swirling, swelling score of lusty choral work and insistent timpani from Davíð Thór Jónsson carries us along with the bracing, beautiful brutality of the island's life.

"You want to ride?"

"Yes, very much."

Reviewed on: 03 Dec 2013
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A country romance about the human streak in the horse and the horse in the human.
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