25 Essential Iceland Movies That Are Worth Your Time
Iceland movies may have limited scope and almost always have brooding, distressing mood, but in this increasingly homogenized world it is exhilarating to watch the survival of unique domestic film industry.
Volcano (Eldfjall, 2011) |Dir. Runar Runarsson
Runar Runarsson’s tender love story tells the story of Reykjavik elderly couples Hannes (Theodor Juliusson) and Anna (Margret Helga Johannsdottir). Hannes, aged 67, retires from long career of being school care-taker. Before that he was a fisherman at Vestmaneyjar archipelago. The sudden volcanic eruption has forced him to the mainland. Dreading what the old age holds for him, Hannes contemplates suicide, only to back out at the last minute. He doesn’t have a smooth relationship with his children who adore their mother. For men like Hannes, whose identity within house and society is marked by their job status, the retirement phase is an unfathomable curse. Yet, Hannes slowly retrieves himself and tries to kindle the relationship dynamics with his caring wife. The fleeting moments of happiness, however, is invaded by cold terror. Anna loses her brain function and motor skills and Hannes, to his children’s protest, takes on the care-giver duties. What follows is an unsentimental yet devastatingly poetic study of love, illness, and death.
The Deep (Djupid, 2012) | Dir. Baltasar Kormakur
Based on true events, Baltasar Kormakur’s survival drama is set in 1984. Six hard-drinking Icelandic fishermen take out their trawler for just another day of fishing in North Atlantic Ocean. Disaster strikes and five men go down with the vessel to meet their icy grave. But tall and big-boned Gulli (Olafur Darri Olaffson) unbelievably endures the cold and swims five hours to reach the land. Gulli, not only seen as an anomaly, but the phenomenal survival turns him into national hero. The rest of the film deals with how Gulli come to terms with this new identity. The first hour of this 90 minute film was thoroughly engrossing. Director Kormakur ably uses the limited technical elements to build fine dramatic momentum. And, Olaffson with his hefty frame and exhausted looks brilliantly carries the narrative. However, Kormakur loses some of the narrative grip in the last half-hour when Gulli is back on land. It doesn’t profoundly delve into Gulli’s emotions apart from unremarkably reiterating his survivor’s guilt and solitary social status.
Metalhead (Malmhaus, 2013) |Dir. Ragnar Bragason
Icelandic farmer parents ask their little daughter Hera to fetch her elder brother Baldur for dinner. Few minutes later, Baldur dies in a horrific accident in the farm, in front of Hera’s eyes. The little girl is emotionally frozen from that moment. She processes her grief by taking possession of her brother’s heavy metal music collection. Every morning she waits for the bus that may take her out of town, but never gets on. She grows up to be hostile, alienated young woman (Thorbjorg Helga Dyrfjord) still waiting for the bus and yet reluctant to lose the only place she has – home. Hera takes up Baldur’s black t-shirts channels her anger and grief into the loud guitar. Although Hera’s parents wear the ‘normalcy’ facade, they too are trapped by emotional agony. Metalhead isn’t definitely a deft study of Iceland’s inclination towards heavy metal worship. Much of the narrative choices verges on melodrama and robs us off profound emotions. Yet director Bragason’s central character and Thorbjorg robust performance makes this an adequate portrait of mourning and grief.
Of Horses and Men (Hross i oss, 2013) |Dir. Benedikt Erlingsson
Benedikt Erlingsson’s remarkable art-house drama studies equine elegance and human eccentricities in an insular, picturesque Iceland community. Erlingsson brings together interlinked series of stories which delivers cultural critique as well as celebrates the small nation’s distinct, beloved creature. To give fair idea about the inventive & strange stories, let me narrate the tale of Kolbeinn (Ingvar E Sigurdsson). He is a rich man, riding a newly tamed white mare to visit his attractive neighbor Solveig (Charlotte Boving). Solveig’s black stallion is enamored by the white mare. When Kolbeinn leaves her after the graceful visit, the stallion breaks free. It runs behind the mare and mounts Kolbein’s mount while the guy was still sitting atop. Despite the scattershot script, what’s interesting about Of Horses and Men is its visual strength where Erlingsson cleverly stitches together human and animalistic commonality. Each darkly humorous vignettes brim with memorable imagery. In Iceland, law forbids the import of foreign horses. So these creatures are integral part of the nation’s history whose bond with mankind extends back to its first settlers. Instead of paying sentimental, straightforward tribute to this strong bond, director Erlingsson uses the weird fables to deeply reflect on the Icelandic soul and nature.
Life in a Fishbowl (Vonarstraeti, 2014) | Dir. Baldvin Zophoniasson
Iceland was the first nation to be affected by 2007/08 economic crash. And, it was hit very hard. Baldvin Zophoniasson’s social realist drama is set during the great crisis period and looks at the seemingly interlinked or overlapping life paths of three characters. Eik is a single mother working as a preschool teacher and as an escort to make ends meet for herself and her diabetic daughter. Mori is a famous author, now an alcoholic, who develops a friendship with Eik. Then there’s Solvi, a former football star who is now taking big strides to climb the corporate ladder. We slowly learn about tragedy and mistakes that shaped these characters. Life in a Fishbowl possesses a deftly intertwined narrative, in the vein of Crash. Despite many coincidences, the writing here adds more depth to the character than the shallow, stereotypical approach in films like Crash. The film resonated well with Icelandic audiences as it speaks of telling truth and overcoming unseen hurdles, in the contrived atmosphere of secrecy and oppression.
Sparrows (Prestir, 2015) |Dir. Runar Runarsson
Director Runar Runarsson who dealt with day-to-day tribulations of an old couple in ‘Volcano’ followed it up with a distressing tale of adolescent metamorphosis. The film opens with the shot of teen protagonist Ari (Atli Oskar Fjalarsson) cloaked in a virginal white dress and sings in a movingly pure voice in the majestic cathedral. The narrative is about how his purity is threatened by the mean world. Ari is forced to stay with his distant father in a remote seaside town, since his mother and step-father are going away on a tour. The town’s residents are bitter victims of bumpy economy. However, there’s a solace in the town as Ari is able re-connect with his childhood friend Lara (Rakel Bjork Bjornsdottir). What follows is unbelievable cruelty and tear-jerking humane gestures. Like in Volcano, Runarsson’s symbolism remains subtle and mesmerizing. The visuals emphasize in poetic realism to depict the frozen emotions of the characters and harsh communal existence.
Rams (Hrutar, 2015) |Dir. Grimur Hakanorson
Director Grimur Hakanorson’s poignant tragicomedy opens with the blend of typical Icelandic images: a calm, beautiful valley, neatly aligned buildings, serene lambs feeding on the pasture, and a fence dividing the land. The human elements very crucial to this story are: bachelor brothers Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjonsson) and Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson) who haven’t exchanged a word for 40 years despite being neighbors to each other. Initially, the taciturn, bearded brothers are seen competing in the prestigious ‘Best Rams Contest’. But soon a dreadful, contagious disease known as ‘scrapie’ threatens affects the sheep in the valley. Authorities call for slaughter of the sheep, disinfection of the farm, and wait out two years before re-stocking the barns. For these isolated brothers, rams are the only companions in life. So Kiddi and Gummi reluctantly join hands to preserve the only love in their life.
Virgin Mountain (Fusi, 2015) | Dir. Dagur Kari
Dagur Kari’s bittersweet character study of a social misfit uses refined sense of visual storytelling method to banish the familiarities in the material. The protagonist Fusi (Gunnar Jonsson) is a 43 year old overweight, terribly shy virgin. He lives with his mother, loves to eat chocolate cereals, obsessed with war games and remote cars. Fusi works at airport in the baggage handling department and is subjected to relentless verbal harassment. Fusi’s very late transition into adulthood happens when he goes for line-dancing class. He meets a fellow lost & lonely soul Sjofn (Ilmur Kristjansfdottir). Virgin Mountain has time-worn plot structure which could have easily followed the paths of Hollywood rom-com or crass adult comedy. Yet, director Kari writes his characters with abundance of compassion and empathy that they are never turned into tools for making us laugh. Even when the narrative runs through predictable premises, it’s endurable because of the absence of cloying sentimentality and due to Gunar Jonsson’s soulful performance. Gunnar was actually a TV comedian who splendidly conveys Fusi’s inner torment and the subsequent emotional journey of the belated adolescent phase.
Heartstone (Hjartsteinn, 2016) | Dir. Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson
Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson’s splendid directorial debut movingly chronicles the coming-of-age crisis of two teenagers, living in a small, dilapidated fishing village. The film doesn’t open with the mystifying Iceland landscape, but rather gently gazes at the boys’ bodies. Their changing emotions and physicality becomes the focal point while the unbridled atmospheric beauty is slightly pushed to the background. When we first see 14 year old Thor and Christian they are fishing with other buddies. Their world is filled with little humiliations, provocations, cruelties, and joys. After catching a fish they beat it to death and when afflicted by boredom they destroy old cars. Yet these small unleashes doesn’t alleviate the boxed-in feeling or smooths the transition into adulthood. Heartstone’s impressive imagery (warm sunlight and battering rains alternately makes its presence) and touchingly real characterizations are its biggest strength. Similar to the haunting Iceland coming-of-age drama Sparrows, Heartstone also doubles up as the study of judgmental, toxic masculinity in an isolated community.
Notable Omissions: Icelandic Dream (2000), Astropia (2007), Stormland (2005), Movie Days (1994), Cold Light (2003), Land Ho! (2014), Niceland (2004), Paris of the North (2014), Jitters (2010), Parents (2007) and Either Way (2011).
Must-see Iceland documentaries: Heima (2007), Hlemmur (2002), Screaming Masterpiece (2005), Dreamland (2009). Gnarr (2010), and Rock in Reykjavik (1982).
Must-see Iceland short films: The Last Farm (2004), 2 Birds (2007), Whale Valley (2013), and Herd in Iceland (2013).