Of Horses And Men
Echo, Glasgow Film At Home from November 23
Rúnarsson is one of the bold voices to have emerged from Iceland in recent years, bringing a gritty realism to his depiction of social issues facing his country and working his way up from successful short films, including the Oscar-nominated The Last Farm, to features. His latest is a multifaceted depiction of his homeland told in vignettes, with 56 stories taking place over Christmas and New Year. Each scene may be brief but they pack a punch and combine universal themes with a winning local specificity.
Life In A Fishbowl, Amazon, from £3.49
Jennie Kermode writes: The canary in the coalmine for the 2007 to 2008 global economic crash, Iceland saw its banking system collapse early on. Here, writer/director Baldvin Zophoníasson asks - like Michael Haneke in The White Ribbon, but in colour and with humour - if it was more than just a product of industry corruption and government deregulation, and was in fact a symptom of a much broader cultural malaise. Telling the interwoven stories of an elderly, alcoholic writer, the young preschool teacher whose child he befriends and a former footballer (with a child in her class) who falls in with sleazy financial scammers, it explores themes of greed, exploitation and the scapegoating of whistleblowers. Everything from the set design to the lighting and the way characters move is designed to keep our attention on the surface, but as the story evolves the audience is stealthily invited to take a look at the decay beneath it. It's a deliberately uncomfortable film yet its wit and its suite of superb performances will keep you watching all the way.
Of Horses And Men, Amazon, Curzon at Home, from £3.49
Benedikt Erlingsson's debut also dips in and out of a mosaic of stories, tapping into the spirit of Icelandic saga with its mixture of spirit, absurdism and adventure. Each tale begins as a reflection in a horse's eye, with some unfolding tragically and others putting the emphasis on comedy. The film feels borne of the Icelandic environment, from the distinctive Icelandic tölt style of running from the horses to its open landscapes, while the rhythmic score from Davíð Thór Jónsson drives the momentum forward at the gallop. Read what Erlingsson told us about shooting the film.
Seeing the Unseen, Amazon Prime
Jennie Kermode writes: The last few years have seen a huge increase in public dialogues about autism, including in cinema, but most of these have two things in common: they focus on children and they focus on male experiences. Bjarney Lúðvíksdóttir and Kristján Kristjánsson's documentary is not just a fascinating film but also a cutting edge piece of research, giving 17 autistic women of various ages the chance to talk about their lives. Because a lot more effort is generally made to teach social skills to girls than to boys, girls often learn to mask their symptoms, which means that it used to be thought that autism in women was very rare, and many still go undiagnosed. This doesn't stop them struggling to navigate society day to day and they face higher than average rates of unemployment, sexual abuse, imprisonment and financial exploitation. These and other issues are discussed by the film's participants, whose diversity makes a point in itself. The film also explores complex emotions around diagnosis in adulthood and the question of whether or not it's worth getting assessed.
The County, Curzon Home Cinema
Grímur Hákonarson is another Icelandic director who roots his films firmly within the landscape of his homeland, with, in the case of this and his Un Certain Regard-winning Rams, a consideration of the tough lives experienced by farmers. When I spoke to him about Rams, he told me: "Our main aim was to make it look real - the acting, the costumes, the set, the cinematography. That it feels from the beginning that they are just real farmers and you are inside their lives." The same can be said for The County, which sees a woman (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir) locking horns with her local co-op after the sudden death of her husband. Egilsdóttir brings a steely determination to her central performance, while Hákonarson uses the landscape to reinforce his themes of stoicism in the face of isolation.
101 Reykjavik, Amazon, from £2.49
No consideration of modern icelandic film would be complete without an entry from Baltasar Kormakur, who having forged a career as an actor, proved he was equally adept at directing and is currently in pre-production on the adaptation of CIA tale The Good Spy, which has Hugh Jackman attached. He made this delightful black comedy back in 2001, which sees slacker Hylnur (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) doing little but sleep at his mother's house in between partying the nights away. His life is somewhat shaken up then when he sleeps with his mother's new flamenco teacher lodger (Victoria Abril) with unexpected consequences... especially when he discovers she's in a lesbian relationship with his mother. With comedy of the finest black and engaging performances, particularly from Abril and Hanna María Karlsdóttir as Hylnur's mum, this is a winning combination - think Almodovar... over ice.
Last And First Men, BFI Player
Jennie Kermode writes: Olaf Stapledon's tremendously influential science fiction novel, essentially an essay on the possibilities of humanity's far future and the gulf of understanding created by temporal and cultural difference, was long considered unfilmable. Jóhann Jóhannsson has cracked the code by approaching it not with lavish CGO but through a minimalist lens. Shooting in black and white, he explores memorial sculptures in the Balkans, his camera approaching them slowly and from odd angles like an alien probe with no context whereby to interpret their meaning. Tilda Swinton provides the voice of humanity's remote descendant, clear and calm, always compelling, with something of the quality of one who has witnessed tragedies and wonders which it's obvious the listener cannot fully comprehend. The textured, scratchy film makes this look like a lost and recovered artefact; the urgency in Swinron's words is more pertinent than ever. The result, though it won't be for everyone, is haunting, a lonely epitaph.
We're returning to an early short from Rúnar Rúnarsson for our short selection this week. The Last Farm, a poignant tale about ageing, loss and doing things your own way.