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“I worked in the countryside. With this film, I am recovering from that shock"

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Benedikt Erlingsson • Director


- The histrionic Icelandic director Benedikt Erlingsson, talked at the Bif&st in Bari about his well-received film, Of Horses and Men, a dark comedy on the relationship between man and horse

Benedikt Erlingsson  • Director

A candidate for the 2014 Oscars representing Iceland, winner of six Edda prizes (including best film and best director) and a number of other international recognitions, the debut film by Benedikt Erlingsson, Of Horses and Men [+see also:
film review
film focus
interview: Benedikt Erlingsson
festival scope
film profile
, raised the interest of attendants of the Bif&st – Bari International Film Festival, where we met the director.

Cineuropa: Landscape is an essential dramatic element in your film. What relationship do you have to the countryside?
Benedikt Erlingsson: I was born and brought up in Reykjavik, but as a boy I was sent to work in the countryside. It is a rather common thing in Iceland: teenagers learn how to work the land. The first time I did this was when I was 12. The person who sent me told the farmers I would be working for that I was 14 and strong, but I was skinny and small. When they saw me, I saw in their eyes that it was going to be a long summer. I spent a total of three summers in a row working. The first time was a true shock to the system. Let’s just say that this film for me is a way of recovering from that shock.

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You were an actor for many years. How did you come to be a director?
I come from a family of storytellers and Dario Fo, with whom my mother studied in Paris, was a source of inspiration. In Iceland, there is a strong oral tradition and Fo recalls that tradition. His energy in telling stories inspired me. There is also an Icelandic literary style from 1200, which profoundly defined us. When I wrote the screenplay, I gave it the dimensions of a tale. More than an actor or a director, I would say that I am a storyteller like we all are. 

The film alternated grotesque moments with other more dramatic ones. What genre did you turn to set the film’s tone?
The tone was not a conscious one. Someone talked of dark humour, in English you call that an understatement: it is the way in which us Icelandic people represent our country. I wanted to tell more interconnected stories, maintaining a degree of detachment from the characters. There is no immersion, the spectator remains distant and has a global view. Other inspiration sources were Pasolini with his Decameron and The Canterbury Tales, in which different people are only united by a theme. 

The film is the portrait of a suggestive and cruel microcosm where female figures stand out. Is this what your country is like?
The main basis of the film is the coexistence between humans and horses. I didn’t want to tell the story of a cultural microcosm, but of human nature. People are in a large space, distant from each other and they want to know everything about others. In big cities, it is the opposite, spaces are full but there is loneliness. The female figure is absolutely from my culture. Women are strong and it is almost a matriarchal culture and you can see this with horses: the mare commands.

There is a shocking scene during a snowstorm when a character takes refuge inside the belly of his horse in order to avoid dying of cold. How was this image born?
I wanted to portray a horse saving a human being. It comes from mythology, but it is also the product of true stories. The grandfather of one of my friends saved himself like this in 1952: he killed his horse and got inside it to spend the night. Even Napoleon’s soldiers in Russia did it to save themselves from the cold.

You paint a picture of the countryside where there are horses, but no other animals. Why?
There is only one dog in the film, which barks and is silenced immediately. Personally, I hate dogs, they are a disturbance in the countryside. When you have to do something with animals you first have to get them to be quiet. There were sheep in the script, but they were difficult to direct. And I wanted clean and simple images. I want to make sure to say that no animal was mistreated during the course of filming, the entire team has and loves horses. I even tried to bring one to the premiere to show people that it was alive and well.

(Translated from Italian)

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