The Flying Pace of an Icelandic Horse

in 37th Göteborg International Film Festival

by Tadeusz Szczepanski

Icelandic cinema keeps amazing us with its originality. More proof of its vitality and appeal can be found in Of Horses and Men (Hross í oss), produced under the patronage of Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, the godfather of Icelandic film success, and directed by Benedikt Erlingsson, a director previously known mostly for his achievements in the theater. The English title of the film refers to John Steinbeck’s famous novel Of Mice and Men, but it has little in common with that text. Instead, it faithfully depicts one of the key aspects of life in Iceland, where horses are as intrinsic to the vast wilderness as camels to the Arabian desert. Like camels, horses have been used for centuries to enable communication between distant settlements and solitary households.

However, the usefulness of horses is only a starting point for showing the deep, even symbiotic, bond between horses and men in Iceland. Not only does Erlingsson draw on a number of parallels (some more subtle than others) between human and animal behavior — for example, in relation to sexual desire — but he shows us dangerous situations in which horses provide men with help, even at the cost of their own lives. The organic relationship between man and animal is symbolized by the reflection of a human figure in a horse’s pupil, and this image kicks off each of the film’s stories.

Of Horses and Men consists of several episodes, each connected by some colourful characters and dramatic adventures, and presented with a sense of humor and poetry. We watch with great amusement as a widow makes subtle advances towards a superannuated bachelor, the proud owner of a purebred mare, ending in a bawdy seduction of the man in a quiet corner of the Icelandic interior. We are not the only witnesses of the daring finale to this courtship; other members of the expedition are also watching, equipped with binoculars.

Elsewhere, a relentless alcoholic rides a horse through water towards a Russian trawler in order to buy smuggled 96% alcohol. Unfortunately, his greedy drinking after he manages to reach the shore means this story has to end tragically. In another episode, a Spanish tourist who becomes separated from the rest of his horseback group gets lost in a blizzard. He rescues himself by hiding inside a disembowelled horse. In the final story, a confrontation between two farmers over barbed wire leads to a deadly end.

Of Horses and Men reveals the exceptional cinematic talent of this former theater director. Erlingsson has a special gift for arranging truly original and attractive situations and images, such as the one on the film’s poster, in which a stallion makes a pass at a mare who carries a stupefied rider on her back. As a matter of fact, this scene rhymes with the unceremonious seduction of the rider by the passionate widow, the owner of the uncontrollable stallion.

The sequence involving the foolhardy expedition for alcohol is also extraordinary. Light signals given off by the inhabitants of scattered settlements result in wonderful film effects.

The specific ethnic character of the film is heralded by the celebration of a horse running gracefully in a unique, almost dancer-like way. This is the so-called flying pace of the Icelandic horse, which cannot be found anywhere else. The flying pace is also a metaphor for Icelandic cinema, which keeps producing more and more new talents, and which astonishes the film world with its unparalleled exoticism.

Edited by Lesley Chow