Inside the Volcano

in 8th Reykjavík International Film Festival

by Alison Frank

Beauty in the midst of nature’s powerful devastation: that is what volcanoes are all about, and so is Rúnar Rúnarsson’s film Volcano (Eldfjall, 2011). The film opens with archive footage of a volcanic eruption in the Westman Islands: showers of bright hot lava in the background, and colourful corrugated-iron clad cottages in the fore. A choir sings a haunting voiceover. It is awesome and terrible to see how small and powerless humans appear in the face of nature’s might, but the images are also beautiful. The same observation applies for the rest of Volcano.

The family at the centre of the film were displaced from their home in the Westman Islands by the eruption. Volcanoes remain relevant, symbolically, long after the family’s relocation to Reykjavík. When the film begins, Hannes has just retired from his job as a school caretaker, and his depression manifests itself as grumpiness. Only opening his mouth to criticise his family, Hannes realises how unbearable he has become when he overhears his grown-up children discussing him. His daughter wonders ‘why Mum puts up with him’, and his son replies, ‘She must have her reasons. At least, I hope so.’

True, Hannes has a funny way of showing he loves his wife, Anna. ‘I’ve got a surprise for you,’ he tells her, smiling smugly. ‘Halibut — so you can make that soup you like so much.’ ‘Oh, thank you Hannes!’ Anna replies indulgently, as if he were a child. Yet the audience also has a chance to see a different side of Hannes and Anna’s relationship, the side which their children will never know. Following an embarrassing incident in the harbour, Hannes rudely refuses to talk to Anna about what happened. At night in bed, though, he confides in her, and they make love: the scene is neither explicit nor coy, and excludes the anticipated feeling of revulsion towards intercourse in old age. As most films focus on the excitement of short-term relationships between young people, long-term relationships between older people are unfamiliar terrain in cinema, and it is refreshing to see the subject broached, and so well.

Illness and death are also subjects which Western society tends to avoid. While films focus on illness and death more frequently than intimacy in old age, such films remain challenging to watch. Even if the audience doesn’t place themselves in the protagonists’ place, it is painful to watch characters suffer — whether they are good-natured, like Anna, or whether they hide their tender side, like Hannes. The drawback of Volcano is that it makes the audience suffer too much with the characters: the film’s pleasures are balanced by equal pain. That said, Volcano is rarely over-explicit in the level of detail with which it examines illness: a degree of authenticity is appropriate, and glossing over the reality of illness would not only be hypocritical but weaken the film’s conclusion.

Iceland’s grandly austere volcanic landscape is capitalised on, as you might expect for a film entitled Volcano, but only in the film’s opening and closing scenes. It is as though Rúnarsson has reserved the power of this landscape to underline and harmonize with moments that are similarly overwhelming in human life: displacement and death. For the rest of the film, the director prefers to narrow the focus to the domestic sphere: Hannes and Anna’s home, no less volcanic at times, with Hannes’ regular grumblings and his family’s occasional outbursts. Although Volcano is only his first feature, Rúnarsson has already established a confident and striking visual style, dividing the frame with doorways and windows, and using mirrors to play with space. These aesthetic choices correspond to the film’s themes, as frames suggest the psychological separation between the characters, while mirror images evoke the discrepancy between outward appearances and the inner person, the way others see us and the way we really are. As an analogue to long shots of the volcanic landscape, Rúnarsson uses extreme close-ups of Hannes’ face, examined in near profile, from a vulnerable angle just behind his shoulder. The surface of the human body is another landscape that conceals intense emotions, memories and love, just waiting for the right stimulus to burst forth.