"Sparrows" Caps a Remarkable Year for Icelandic Film

in 39th Göteborg Film Festival

by Maria Ulfsak-Sheripova

It has been a remarkable year for the Icelandic film industry with Virgin Mountain, Rams and Sparrows all being very successful at international festivals. Now Rúnar Rúnarsson’s Sparrows is the winner of the Fipresci award at the 39th Göteborg Film Festival, dedicated to the best of the fresh Nordic Cinema.

The Icelandic film industry has seen some great successes during the last few years, but 2015 has been particularly good and productive. Icelandic films won a total of 103 international awards during the last year – and considering that it is a nation with a population of 330,000, it can be said that this probably makes it the biggest number of film awards per citizen. Virgin Mountain (Fúsi, Dagur Kári) premiered in Berlin and won three prizes in Tribeca; Rams (Hrútar, Grímur Hákonarson) premiered in Cannes and won the Un Certain Regard Award and also the Golden Alexander at Thessaloniki; Sparrows (Rúnar Rúnarsson) had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and won the Golden Shell award for Best Film in San Sebastián. And of course we should not forget the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score for the film Sicario by Denis Villeneuve.

At this year’s Göteborg Film Festival the list of awards became even longer as Sparrows was also awarded with the Fipresci prize.

The film tells a story of a teenager named Ari whose mother has a new partner. The mother and her boyfriend move to Angola. The film starts with Ari (Atli Oskar Fjalarsson) singing in the church choir in Reykjavik. Young actor Fjalarsson is a brilliant find. Pale, sensitive, vulnerable and innocent, he’s reminiscent of a little bird. And now it’s time for the little bird to be thrown out of the nest. Ari has to move to a fishing village with his estranged alcoholic father. The only bright spots there are his grandmother (who actually also takes care of the overgrown adolescent father) and Lana, his childhood friend. The sweet-natured boy from a comfortable home now has to face a brutal and patriarchal working class society. He is lonely, confused and looking for himself as most 16-year olds do. But harsh conditions force Ari to choose between telling the truth or protecting the one he loves.

Avoiding the cliches of many coming-of-age films, Rúnarsson tells Ari’s story honestly and with patience. It is a beautifully crafted and sweet film about the end of the age of innocence. The film shows the Icelandic nature without taking too much advantage of it, the mesmerizing beauty of the surroundings is there, but it does not lead the focus away from the story.

A wonderful thing about Sparrows is that it has a very wide target group – the film works well for young viewers as well as adults, for critics as well as wider audiences. It is a film that can be attended with a 13-year old to talk about life and adolescence, but it’s also a treat for the picky festival audiences.

Rúnarsson’s 2011 strong debut feature Volcano dealt unsentimentally with the topic of elderly people and death. Volcano premiered at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes and became an international success. Delicate and beautiful, Sparrows is a step further for the director, confirming his reputation as one of the most promising young directors in Europe.

Edited by Steven Yates