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May 20, 2022


To most of us, Iceland is an exotic, mysterious and unquestionably marginal territory. Ice, volcanoes and generally a less hospitable nature – this is how we imagine the island to the Northern border of Europe. Its inhabitants we imagine almost as adventurers at the border or civilisation, more as survivors against the adversity of the place than to terms with their little accommodating universe. As for culture, we reduce it to medieval mythological tales, for Halldór Laxness, a Nobel prize winning writer in 195, very few have heard of. It’s true that the new Northern crime fiction fashion has also disseminated authors such as Arnaldur Indridason, with his fetish-character, detective Erlendur Sveinsson. So here is Iceland becoming much more culturally present through its surprising cinema industry.

In Romania, TIFF (Transylvania International Film Festival) has drawn attention to a quasi-ignored world. `Noi the Albino`, directed by Dagur Kári, won the Transylvania Trophy in 2003, and has continued to be one of the most memorable films awarded within the Cluj film competition over the years. One of the festival sections tries to follow up in the subsequent careers of former winners. This year’s edition presents Dagur Kári’s most recent film, `Virgin Mountain` – a metaphorical international title that dwells too much on the exotic image of Icelandic universe. The original film name is `Fúsi`, the name of the protagonist, a good-natured plodder, actually a ‘late’ child with a passion for strategy games and far too shy for intimate relationships. His life seems not just dull like the ones of the people surrounding him, but also a bit more appeased by solitude. However, his is just more strident, because he is surrounded by many other solitudes, guised just by conflict hysteria. Although intensely concerned with major history battles,  Fúsi, is extremely peaceful, takes colleagues’ offences without fighting back and he is especially capable of forgiveness – he doesn’t conceive his actions based on others’ hostile attitudes. Eventually falling in love with a depressive and labile lady, he helps her up to the end, unconditionally, although their relationship fails. Although is ends up alone, his gestures actually place him in a different existential registry – he is like a moral explorer who makes his way by himself in an interior space for which the rest of the world is not yet ready. In addition, he candidly ignores suspicions that could efface his good humour. How can one live in a versatile world, poisoned with suspicion?

Fúsi is a possible answer. Too fat not to be marginalised, too childish not to be ridiculed, to unmalicious not to intrigue, too sacrificial not to annoy, he is the man of major challenges. His lesson is the ‘commonness of good’, just to paraphrase Hannah Arendt. Common and humble gestures often match love. Being a garbage man for a few days out of love is not such a big thing per se, but it actually takes a considerable moral effort. Dagur Kári’s film brings a surprising air of freshness over old themes of Christian culture that have become too dusty and sadingly sterile.

But Icelandic cinema has been awarded at TIFF this year too. The film `Rams`, directed by Grímur Hákonarson, received the Special Jury Award and the Public Award. The story of two brothers, neighbours and life-long enemies who end up in reconciliation in the dramatic circumstances of an epidemic that threaten their sheep occasioned a rather minimalist film, a cleansed tragedy, with discrete humour flats animated by a mute drama. .

The protagonists love their sheep more than they love each other, their humanity depends on the affection with which they domesticate the animals. If they can behave like savages with one another, their existential pathos is chiselled in relation to animals. They rediscover in that way, apparently indirectly, the virtues of domestication. Because they love their sheep with equal pathos, the two neighbours who have not been on speaking terms for a long time will confess to their brotherly attachment late. In fact, the ‘humanisation’ of their attitude to animals, increasingly popular these days, masks a rupture from the arrogant self-centrism that dominated for a long time. From enemy, servant or food, the animal becomes companion. Humanising life in a paradoxical fashion.

An atmosphere such as the one of the far North – cold, poorly populated, secluded – inevitably created a variety of typologies, interiorised and in solitude. Another Icelandic film presented at TIFF this year demonstrates that – ‘Paris of the North’, directed by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson. A young professor withdraws from the Capital into a village, overwhelmed by a traumatic separation and threatened by alcoholism. His recovery is questionable and so is his integration into the new environment. His long absent father’s sudden visit – a traveller of the world – will speed up his departure. Optimistic and vital despite illness and age, the father is indirectly a boost for overcoming the chronicle indecisiveness of the affectively frail son. Postponing choices-  good or bad – is the condition of the person who settles for the protection of a deceitful seclusion.

To any self-sufficient culture, Iceland teaches the lesson of a surprising creativeness, able to renew artistic languages and moral themes starting from an extremely circumscribed reality. From marginal and exotic, Iceland gains a ‘centrality’ of an influential cultural landmark.


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