Back to Nature: Of Horses and Men

in 24th Tromsø International Film Festival

by Carmen Gray

It was pretty miserable wretches that minded at all whether they were wet or dry. He could not understand why such people had been born. “It’s nothing but damned eccentricity to want to be dry,” he would say. “I’ve been wet more than half my life and never been a whit the worse for it.” — Haldor Laxness, Independent People

Mid-winter darkness in the Arctic Circle is the setting for Norway’s Tromsø International Film Festival. It’s a place of deep quiet and isolation, with a brusque cold that you imagine with an urge to romanticise simplifies any fuss and makes the fishermen whose boats dot the port stoic. It’s a place, also, that lends to thinking about director Benedikt Erlingsson’s Of Horses and Men — a stand-out in the festival’s richly varied competition programme this year, and the product of the similarly sublime and forbidding Nordic landscapes of Iceland.

The film plays out in a rural community that relies on sturdy little Icelandic horses while eking out a living. Aside from the appearance of a busload of German tourists that have come to tap northern exoticism, the series of vignettes seems almost outside time. In the first, dashing suitor Kolbeinn (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson) rides to the house of neighbour Solveig (Charlotte Boving) to take tea in a visit that seems more 19th-century-style anachronism than modern dating ritual, the film’s abundant earthy sexual directness aside. There’s a sense of a world that’s unchanging — a world that’s in no small part the same as that of Independent People, the Icelandic classic by Halldor Laxness about a monumentally stubborn croft farmer barely hanging on to survival in a brutally inhospitable and unforgiving environment of straying animals, blizzards and unbridgeable human solitude. In both, the precariousness and unpredictability of such a life demands a stoic metal that is no domain for sentimentality.

In Of Horses and Men, the episodes turn on accidents that befall the various locals. Grimur (Kjartan Ragnarsson) is bloodied and blinded by barbs, having taken it upon himself to cut the wire blocking access to an ancient public path, and is at the mercy of his stead to carry him home. Vernhardur (Steinn Armann Magnusson) plunges his horse into the sea, riding the frantically swimming beast to a Russian trawler to collect vodka he suspects they carry on board — not realising due to the language barrier it is pure alcohol he then guzzles. These intertwined tales are braced with a warm humanity and lashings of Iceland’s dark, idiosyncratic humour, but don’t hold back on the fatal, urgent threat and gravity of consequences. The folk are taciturn, resourcefully pragmatic and full of a pride constantly undermined for comic effect. In a now-famed publicity still of the film, Solveig’s randy stallion, who has broken through a fence, causes a cuckold-type humiliation for Kolbeinn when he mounts his mare — with him still in the saddle. Hard liquor incapacitates the men’s faculties on more than one occasion, leaving women to avert disaster. Determined young Johanna (Sigridur Maria Egilsdottir), who is the object of ardour for a Spanish-speaking tourist, proves the most quick-thinking of the lot when she goes after escaped steads.

Just as central as the humans, as the title suggests, are the horses. In imaginative framing, we often see the environment reflected in their eyes. As they are anthropomorphised, so the animal nature of people is emphasised. Laughing and neighing are intercut to mirror each other; the courting of the beasts brings out in its echo with straightforward honesty the primal basis of human urges. The most startling and arresting episode of all turns on the novel, shockingly extreme measure taken by the Spanish tourist to prevent freezing to death after he becomes lost in the open, snowy elements. Killing and hollowing out a horse to curl up in for shelter, the carcass becomes a womb — a powerful image of the merciless cycle of nature, in the face of which we are as eternally helpless as babies.

Carmen Gray