by David Katz
- Ninna Pálmadóttir’s first feature is a fleet, gentle study of a melancholic farmer looking for connection as he resettles in Reykjavík
When a man has only his stock of animals for company, over several decades – no matter how devoted and caring his relationship to them is – maybe we can expect his behaviour towards humans to follow suit. This is what Ninna Pálmadóttir implies in her debut feature, Solitude [+see also:
interview: Ninna Palmadottir
film profile], premiering in Toronto’s Discovery section, whilst also positing both critical and optimistic overall impressions of her home country, Iceland. With established Icelandic filmmaker Rúnar Rúnarsson on board as its sole screenwriter, Pálmadóttir has made an absorbing and well-turned first movie, meditating on numerous issues of domestic concern, such as the country’s urbanisation and its response to the refugee crisis, yet it also skirts cliché and overfamiliarity.
Modern Icelandic cinema’s favourite protagonist is the oft-silent “mountain man”: ageing, yet highly self-reliant; brusque, but harbouring a dawning friendliness; and maybe nursing alcoholism, a furious temper, or some other buried screwed-up-ness. Gunnar (Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson), Pálmadóttir and Rúnarsson’s variation on this type, is especially defined by his sense of innocence, so much so that his behaviours aren’t always plausible or realistic, no matter how convincingly drawn the settings he inhabits are. Like a character from a fairy tale, he’s gifted a golden egg, or more specifically 150 million krónur from the government, who repossess his vast farmland, as it will become gradually unusable due to the water passage from a hydroelectric dam. So Gunnar heads to a fairly plush, suburban part of Reykjavík and buys a small, family-sized home; very characteristically, he asks for the past tenants’ old furniture and decor to be maintained and not sold.
Gunnar then begins a series of Chaplin-esque little adventures, which gradually take a dark turn. Justifiably alarmed by the Icelandic government deporting Afghan refugees who’ve made illegal border crossings, he summarily withdraws 50 million krónur in cash from his primary bank, intending to donate it to an activist group: “Would you like a security guard to escort you for your route back home?” the bank manager kindly and facetiously asks. The key plot development is his burgeoning, and maybe troubling, friendship with Ari (Hermann Samúelsson), a lonely ten-year-old boy who lives in the grander residence opposite his, and who is being ferried between his separated mum and dad as they struggle to find a stable co-parenting arrangement.
A wave to say hello as they spot one another on the street turns into Gunnar looking after and feeding Ari at his own home, after the boy misplaces his house keys. In a nice, placid scene, arguably devoid of any symbolic import, they play chess on a vintage chessboard; it doesn’t represent anything, be it national or generational – it’s just a fun, absorbing thing to do. But what creates discomfort is Gunnar’s willingness to look after him, and to accompany Ari to places like the mall and his junior football matches, and initially at least, his mother Unnur (Anna Gunndís Guðmundsdóttir) values the extra help.
Observing this relationship grow, the audience viewing might feel a disproportionate sense of tension compared to the way Pálmadóttir shoots and stages it; that Gunnar himself is a bit of a fantasy fable character, devoid of any backstory, intentionally or not, also doesn’t help the story’s persuasiveness. Yet the director undoubtedly conjures the moderate existential travails of modern Iceland, whose past is mythical and whose future maybe vast in potential, and whose cinema often happily falls into tonal darkness, a bit like the ever-depleting daylight.
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