Nordic Cinema – An Overview On New Films

in 47th Norwegian International Film Festival Haugesund

by CJ Johnson

The Norwegian International Film Festival has been running since 1973, and based permanently in the maritime, deeply picturesque city of Haugesund, on the South Western coast of this spectacular country, since 1987. I was privileged to share jury duties on sixteen Nordic films with international colleagues Tadeusz Szczepanski (Poland) and Ida Hestman (Norway). It’s pleasing to report that based on this strong batch of features, Nordic cinema seems to be in very good shape, featuring diverse stories across a whole spectrum of genres told, for the most part, with a great deal of craft, vitality and originality. Very little of what I saw could be considered remotely formulaic.

My festival slate got off to a sublime start with Michael Noer’s suspenseful, supremely well crafted morality tale Before The Frost (Før Frosten). Set in rural 1850s Denmark, it stars a magnificent Jesper Christensen as Jens, an aging farmer facing a ruined crop and rapidly diminishing prospects, who makes some increasingly dubious – and dangerous – decisions in order to keep food on the table and his family together. The film is impeccable in its period detail, offering an eye-opening window on the strange intricacies of Danish pre-industrial rural life, including the massive role played by the local Church, where the Deacon, it seems, also operated as the town cop, judge and mayor. Noer uses a handheld camera to keep up with the script’s relentless pace – there’s a lot of drama packed into the film’s one hour and forty-four minutes – and saves flourishes such as music for when the action starts getting really heavy. The result is realistic, aided by superb naturalistic acting from the entire cast, but also thrilling. Merchant Ivory this is not. Dark, moody and intense, you could get away with calling it Nordic Period Noir.

There were few comedies, but Day Three’s Out of Tune (De frivillige), about a disgraced company director going to prison for, one assumes, some sort of fraud or other financial misdeed, was one; once inside, he propels himself into a battle for control of the prison’s choir. The film was gently humorous but most intriguing for me was its depiction of the sheer civility of the Danish prison system, where the guards treat the prisoners with dignity and respect and are actively engaged in their rehabilitation and mental health. American audiences would take it as a fairy tale.

Iceland’s Let Me Fall (Lof mer ad falla), an epic portrait of two teenage girls and their addictions, was intense, if too long. Clocking in at over two hours – unusual for this Festival – the film follows the leads from their earliest taste of drugs when they’re fifteen through to them at thirty-five (and played by different actresses, rather than aging anyone up or down). The film is unflinching and resolutely grim, joining the likes of Panic In Needle Park and Requiem For A Dream, especially in its final scenes; it is also rather tremendously acted. As with Out of Tune, what may strike non-Nordic audiences the most is how lovingly and respectfully one of the girls’ parents deal with her increasing addiction. Dignity is shown to prisoners and junkies in the Great North.

A White, White Day (Hvítur, hvítur dagur), Hlynur Pálmason’s follow-up to his acclaimed and award-winning debut Winter Brothers (Vinterbrødre), features a once-in-a-lifetime role for the great Ingvar Sigurdsson, who nails every moment as a widowed grandfather building a house for his daughter and granddaughter while quietly losing his mind. Some of the technical attributes of the film are mind-blowing, and Pálmason is unafraid to stick his neck out with some extremely bold directorial choices.

We awarded our prize unanimously to Before The Frost, with this statement: “We found the selection of films this year to be of a very high standard. Our short list contained films which all presented deep ethical and particularly moral challenges. Our final winner was not only a powerful morality play, it was thrillingly told, with excellent craft, and also presented an exotic milieu with a modern urgency. It also features a towering performance for a mature actor. It is Before The Frost.”

CJ Johnson