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01 April 2006

Sweet Land (2005)

Elizabeth Reaser (Inge), Tim Guinee (Olaf), Alan Cumming (Frandsen), Ned Beatty (Harmo)

Directed by Ali Selim

From the official site: "When Lars Torvik's grandmother, Inge, dies in 2004, he is faced with a decision: sell the family farm or cling to the legacy of the land. Seeking advice, he turns to the memory of Inge and the stories that she had passed on to him. A young Inge Altenberg arrived on the farm that became her lifelong home in 1920. She was a mail order bride, a refugee from the World War I and, to the dismay of her new community, a German. Olaf Torvik was the young Norwegian Farmer who had sent for her. First they must learn to understand each other and then find acceptance in a time of prejudice, suspicion and economic peril."

I am a sucker for happy endings, as many people know, and this Capra-like fable of lasting love was tailor-made for glad saps like me. Granted, the story opens with the passing of both main characters –- one in the 1960s and the other in 2004 –- but you can imagine that the lives they led together, from 1920 until their deaths, were full and exuberant. The film begins with a quote by author Will Weaver, from the short story "A Gravestone Made of Wheat" on which director, Ali Selim, based his screenplay: "We must hope that each of us is preceded in this world by a love story." And, indeed, Sweet Land is just such a love story.

Perhaps intentionally, the Wisconsin Film Festival organizers showed this movie directly after Kinamand. Sweet Land, however, received more substantial, advanced word-of-mouth. The showing completely sold out. Both films portray unconventional, arranged marriages and issues of prejudice that threaten the success of those fledgling relationships, each employing similar techniques. The two male leads, Keld from Kinamand and Olaf from Sweet Land, are taciturn and solitary creatures who open to love, opportunity, and the world at large because of their unconventional and relentlessly infatuating new partners.

Both female leads, Ling from Kinamand and Inge from Sweet Land, overcome the difficulties and anxieties of their predicaments through the gentle enforcement of their will and the steady application of their upbringing. In addition, they both cook well enough to tempt saints, let alone desperately stubborn, lonely bachelors, and have a sort of honest, unpretentious sex appeal that renders their partners helpless.

Poor Olaf. I cannot recall a more harrowing example of sexual frustration, but with a gentleness fostered by the film's humorous, playful flavor. Olaf's self-control was absolutely adorable and irresistible. When the minister quizzes him about their unmarried household arrangement, he explodes. "I sleep in the barn!" That one harsh, exasperated sentence explains the tormented restraint he imposes on himself every night. The minister could never understand the toll it was taking on him. Tim Guinee intensely reminded me of a younger Harrison Ford, particularly Ford's more vulnerable and innocent roles like Regarding Henry or the light-hearted moments in Witness.

If Guinee was Harrison Ford, then Elizabeth Reaser is a doppelganger for Penelope Cruz. That distinctive, almost saucy underbite distracted in its resemblance! Although born and raised in Michigan, Reaser spoke almost no English in this film, and she had to deliver a number of frustrated tirades entirely in German. Although I am curious how German audiences would receive her performance, I was dead impressed. And, as I described in Kinamand, none of the German was translated. We are in the same boat as Olaf and the villagers, trying to understand Inge's intentions and personality through clues of body language, intonation, and expression.

The movie is one of imagination and memory, literally. In almost every scene, Inge's hair and make-up are flawless, and she wore one particularly traveling outfit over and over. At first, I thought this was unrealistic movie magic, but then I thought of the way the story was told. Inge, as an old woman, relates the tale of her courtship to her grandson, Lars, after giving him an old photograph of herself. That photo was taken the day she arrived to become Olaf's wife, and in it, she is beautifully made up and dressed in her best to meet her new husband. Lars, having only this one image of his youthful grandmother, creates the flashback from that starting point. Young people often find it difficult to envision elderly relatives as anything other than old, so Lars did the best he could, placing that particular Inge –- well-dressed, pretty, and neatly made up –- in all of his flashback imaginings. This trick of storytelling lent the entire film an extra dose of fairy tale magic.

Alan Cumming, as Olaf's vaguely pathetic and very fatherly best friend, was comedic, but he did not spoil the picture with an overdose slapstick or hijinks. However, I did find his pairing with Alex Kingston a little improbable. She seemed too solid and practical to be married to the town clown. Ned Beatty and John Heard, as the archetypal nasty banker and god-fearing minister, respectively, added to the Capra parable feel, but the real centerpiece was the chemistry between Reaser and Guinee and the magic they created for their characters. Like Elizabeth and Darcy, the anticipation was breath-taking (read: all warm and tingly). I just wanted those two to find the right time and place...which they do. Behind closed doors.

After the viewing, Ali Selim was on hand to answer audience questions, providing everyone a rare glimpse into the inner workings (and WORK) of an unknown director. I stumped the poor fellow by asking him what he thought of his own film –- what compromises he made, which scenes turned out better than he planned, and how the whole thing lived up to what he imagined when he started this project back in 1991. I hope he is able to build on the success Sweet Land has achieved here at the Wisconsin Film Festival in order to find a distributor for this, his debut film. More people deserve to enjoy this unconventionally sweet treat.

Blogger Reel Fanatic said...

Great review of a movie I never would have otherwise heard of .. I'll see just about anything with Ned Beatty in it!

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