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New Films From Iceland

At the American Film Institute’s National Film Theater Sept. 29 to Oct. 1

Spike & Mike’s Classic Festival of Animation 2000

Various Directors

Iceland is a small country, with a population smaller than that of the District of Columbia’s, but it has lots of fascinating territory for a filmmaker to explore. That this territory is as much psychic as actual is illustrated by the abundance of characters who suffer derangement and depression in the five “New Films From Iceland” screening this weekend at the American Film Institute. In the 17th century, such behavior was credited to witchcraft; in the 20th, schizophrenia. But whatever the terminology, Iceland’s reputation as a land of light and shadows is clearly not just a matter of long summer days and short winter ones.

Culturally, Iceland is probably best known these days as the home of Björk, whose first (and only, she says) acting role comes in Dancer in the Dark, opening next week. The island has also cast a spell on many trendy British rockers, including Blur’s Damon Albarn, who co-wrote the score for 101 Reykjavík with one of Björk’s former bandmates, ex-Sugarcube Einar Orn. 101’s music includes a series of wispy, bouncy, and hammering variations on the Kinks’ “Lola,” in honor of the character who disrupts the slack lifestyle of the film’s post-adolescent protagonist. Hlynur (Hilmir Snær Gudnason) lives with his mother (Hanna María Karlsdóttir) in 101 Reykjavík, the city’s central zone, which he prefers not to leave. (Asked about some of Iceland’s rustic wonders, he says he’s seen them on postcards.) When not sleeping, Hlynur drinks with his friends, smokes dope with his mom, and screws his sometime girlfriend, Hofi. Then bisexual Spanish flamenco instructor Lola (Pedro Almodóvar regular Victoria Abril) moves in.

Alone together and very drunk on New Year’s Eve, Hlynur and Lola have riotous, apartment-wrecking sex. Soon, Hlynur learns that Lola is pregnant. And that his mother and Lola are in love. And that the two women plan on raising the baby together. Oh, and that Hofi is pregnant, too. It’s enough to drive a sardonic Icelandic layabout to extremes: Hlynur considers suicide, or perhaps even getting a job.

Writer-director Baltasar Kormákur appeared as an actor in Fridrik Thór Fridriksson’s Angels of the Universe, and 101 Reykjavík plays like a droll counterpart to that darker tale. There’s even a scene in which Hlynur taunts a couple he finds making love at a party, suggesting that their exploits should be filmed for a documentary that could be called Children of Nature—the title of Fridriksson’s best-known film. Very dry but consistently engaging, 101 Reykjavík lampoons both the Icelandic temperament and Iceland’s cinema.

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Two of the other films I previewed—I didn’t see Honor of the House—are also set in contemporary Iceland, where, it seems, psychology is helpless and religion is a fraud. Angels of the Universe is an account of another aimless youth, albeit a more sensitive one. Artistic, high-strung Páll (Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson) tells upper-class girlfriend Dagney that “I’m not human. I’m a cloud in pants”—and then proceeds to vaporize when Dagney’s snobbish mother insists that her daughter break up with him. Páll loses his way, turns violent, and ends up in an asylum, where his new friends include a guy who insists that he writes songs for the Beatles and sends them to the group by telepathy. (At one point, he painstakingly composes “Hey Jude.”) “Schizophrenia is deeply rooted in the Icelandic character,” explains Páll’s shrink, and despite its occasional comic moments, Angels of the Universe has no strategy to unroot.

The slightest of the four films I saw is Fiasco, which tells the separate but overlapping stories of three different generations of the same family: Light-fingered grandpa Karl falls for an old woman who insists that she’s a Hollywood star, hard-suffering mom Steina is in love with a corrupt evangelist who likes to party with strippers while dressed (rather blatantly) in a devil suit, and now that daughter Júlía is pregnant, she plans to get one of her two boyfriends to marry her. (101 Reykjavík’s Hlynur complains that Icelanders are insufficiently fertile, but all but one of these movies feature an embryo or two.) Writer-director Ragnar Bragason interweaves these three tales ingeniously, but the characters are less compelling than the artifice.

Set in 1658, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s Witchcraft transpires in an entirely different world than the other films, yet there are numerous similarities. Angels’ Páll contemplates Dagney’s betrayal to the tune of “I Put a Spell on You,” and Witchcraft’s Pastor Jón (Gudnason) also considers himself bewitched. Things would have been simpler if the newly ordained preacher’s first parish hadn’t come with the proviso that he marry the former minister’s widow. This arrangement makes the attraction Ján feels for pretty servant, healer, and midwife Thurid (Sara Dógg Asgeirsdóttir) an adulterous abomination. The pastor’s zeal to destroy pagan blasphemies gets confused with his lust, and the self-styled “warrior for God” doesn’t exactly endear himself to Thurid by insisting that her father and brother be burned to death for scrawling obscene runes in a prayer book. Driven further into carnal bewilderment by a book of pornographic satanic drawings, Ján accuses Thurid of sorcery. Ultimately, however, Ján is dealt a comeuppance—two, actually—that viewers are unlikely ever to forget.

Gunnlaugsson, who previously directed little-seen but well-regarded Viking epics, conjures medieval Iceland with chiaroscuro, saturated colors, and stark landscapes. This time, however, the battle is joined not with broadswords but with gruesome heavenly punishments and lurid earthly temptations. “God is dead. Nietzsche killed him,” explains one of Angels of the Universe’s inmates, but Witchcraft takes advantage of God’s 17th-century vitality to give him a spectacular final comment.

The contents of the typical Spike & Mike animation festival can be divided into just a few categories: the music video, the arty European (or sometimes Canadian) parable, and the antitoon, which makes cruel fun of small children or cute animals. There’s usually some claymation, a few delicate pieces done with colored pencil or watercolor, and, of course, something from Aardman Animations, the outfit that created Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run.

Aardman’s contributions to Spike & Mike’s Classic Festival of Animation 2000 exemplify the collection’s hit-or-miss quality: Peter Peake’s Hum Drum is a very funny (and Oscar-nominated) tale of shadow puppets who are so bored they decide they’ll play shadow puppets. It’s also a repeat from last year’s fest—and insufficient compensation for Darren Walsh’s Angry Kid, several shrill vignettes about a back-seat brat.

Curiously, the music videos are both on supernatural themes: Mark Caballero’s Graveyard Jamboree With Mysterious Mose is junkyard stop-action, and Raymond S. Persi and Matthew Nastuk’s Ghost of Stephen Foster (the latter with music by the Squirrel Nut Zippers) is mock Max Fleischer-style toonsmithery. Both are scored to jump-jive monster-mash ditties.

The arty pieces look fine but don’t always work as narratives. The best is Vuk Jevremovic’s Panther, an impressionistic piece based on a Rilke poem; it’s simply a series of lyrically rendered transformations. Equally stylish are Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis’ When the Day Breaks, a tale of everyday misfortune in a city of anthropomorphic animals, and Eugene Fedorenko and Rose Newlove’s Village of Idiots, a version of an old Jewish folktale whose makers seem to have forgotten that animation is a visual medium: A narrator tells the whole story as it’s sketched, rendering either word or image redundant. After 23 years of Spike & Mike fests, you’d think the organizers would know better. Still, better 13 redundant minutes in the Village of Idiots than another second with the Angry Kid. CP