“Sorry. I want you to forgive me,” those are the first words in Shame on Dry Land (Syndabocken), the last film by Swedish director Axel Petersén (best known for his amazing first feature Avalon in 2011) is part-plea, part-claim. The man who talks to himself is sitting under deck in a big cargo ship. It is as if he’s rehearsing a monologue for a stage performance, rather than saying something from the heart.
He is called Dimman (The Fog) and he is on his way to Malta to ask an old partner to forgive him for screwing up their common business eight years prior. Fredrik, business partner and Dimman’s childhood friend, turns out not to be amused that a ghost from the past suddenly makes a surprise appearance. The timing couldn’t be worse. Fredrik is busy preparing a lavish wedding with his girlfriend Sara, whose family has deep roots on the island of Malta, where the whole movie takes place.
It is a stroke of genius by Petersén to place this Mediterranean noir, which relies so much on atmosphere, in Malta of all places. The sunny island between Sicily and North Africa has a solid bad reputation. Corruption, money laundering, political assassinations and shady sales of so-called “golden passports” that open the door to the EU for an immoral elite. But Malta is also a known oasis for Swedish gambling companies and e-gaming entrepreneurs, a community of expats with a lot of shady businesses.
All of this makes Malta a perfect spot for an original and unconventional thriller, seasoned with dirty sex, shabby globalism, primal screams and incendiary violence. The fluid relationships and numerous secrets imbue Shame on Dry Land with a strange atmosphere. Anything seems possible in the sunny holiday paradise where luxurious stone houses and azure sparkling pools reside side by side with dirty alleys and dark gambling dens.
Dimman, intensely played by Joel Spira, is the dark heart of the movie. A roving anti-hero whose sometimes sadly empty and sometimes abysmal gaze burns holes in the screen. Here you also notice the worn-down beauty Kicki (a devilishly forthright Jacqueline Ramel), as well as her gaunt, sardonic loverboy. Feature film debutant and well-known artist Tommy Nilsson turns out to be God’s gift in the role of a sneaky and assertive wedding fixer with a high wow-factor.
An international film website aptly called Shame on Dry Land for “that rare bird of sensual fusion between commercial Hollywood and European arthouse sensibilities” after its world premiere in Toronto last fall. Add a seventies scent reminiscent of the last golden age of the thriller genre. “Dimman” can be seen as a relative of Jack Nicholson’s wandering journalist in Antonioni’s The Passenger (Professione: Reporter) or Bruno Ganz’s lost sailor in Alain Tanner’s In the White City (Dans la Ville Blanche).
Repeated close ups, where the information often ends up outside the frame, fascinating light that plays with red, white, and blue, as well as Baba Stiltz’s disturbingly dissonant music nicely and thankfully maintain the mystery throughout the film. A heartwarming notion of reconciliation adds to the vast palette of feelings.
Edited by Savina Petkova
© FIPRESCI 2023