'Echo' ('Bergmal'): Film Review | Locarno 2019

Locarno Film Festival
A quietly ruminative mosaic.

Icelandic director Runar Runarsson continues his run of one-word titles, after 'Volcano' and 'Sparrows,' with his latest feature.

A mosaic-like overview of life in contemporary Iceland just before Christmas, Runar Runarsson’s Echo (Bergdal) is a quietly ruminative feature consisting of 56 unconnected scenes. Some of the best segments, each of them a single, fixed-camera shot, play like terrific short films. The meaning of other, more documentary-like scenes is more elusive or only starts to make sense when placed alongside some of the other vignettes in what feels like a sprawling work — even if the film runs only a taut 79 minutes.

After Volcano (Cannes Directors’ Fortnight 2011) and Sparrows (San Sebastian Golden Shell 2015), this is an exciting new direction for Runarsson, who proves that making a film about Iceland today doesn’t necessarily require a three-act narrative structure and characters with carefully calibrated needs and desires and neatly constructed backstories. Echo premiered in competition in Locarno.

In one of the early scenes, a funeral parlor worker in a church (most of the actors, uncredited in the press book, were non-professionals) unscrews the lid of a coffin to reveal the lifeless, angelic-looking body of a boy. When he receives a call on his cellphone, he sits down in one of the pews to discuss an urgent matter with his son, who needs to rearrange his pickup after a schedule change. (We only hear one side of the conversation.) With the dead boy in the foreground and the father sorting out the life of his very-much-alive son in the background, the short scene suggests life and death are both present at the same time, including at Christmas, when the birth of Christ is celebrated.  

Some of the scenes are miniatures that would work perfectly as stand-alone shorts. A girl meets the new girlfriend of her piano-teacher father for the first time and is then upstaged by the woman’s daughter, a piano prodigy taught by her dad. Two nurses in a mobile unit comfort a drug user who might feel especially alone around Christmas. A janitor at a museum, cleaning the windows of a taxidermy exhibit, has to fight back her tears when her ex-husband informs her over the phone that he’s taking their kids abroad for Christmas even though he also had the kids last year over the holidays. 

Though the camera of Runarsson’s regular cinematographer, Sophia Olsson, never moves, the aforementioned scenes are all very moving. Even a fairly straightforward shot of a thirtysomething man eating a microwaved dinner alone during what’s supposed to be a festive time is touching. He seems to be relatively well-off but money can’t necessarily buy you familial warmth or friends. Or is he just home alone exceptionally? He does send a sad snap of his dinner to someone on his phone and has a good chuckle about it.

Viewers expecting an actual narrative might initially be lost, waiting for characters to return again and story setups to continue. It would be smart marketing-wise to make sure people know what to expect when they go in. It’s not dissimilar to other Nordic examples, such as the vignette-filled features of Sweden’s Roy Andersson, though irony and black humor are more present in his work. It’s also somewhat reminiscent of the crisscrossing Christmas tales of Home for Christmas from Norway’s Bent Hamer, though Runarsson’s work is finally more documentary-like than either of these examples. Some scenes are virtually 100 percent documentary, like the opening and closing; others feel very real, too, like a shot of not even 30 seconds of a few butchers dancing along to a Christmas song on the radio while carving up the carcasses in front of them. 

The film was shaped in the editing room by veteran Danish editor Jacob Secher Schulsinger, who cut not only several of Lars von Trier’s films as well as Palme d’Or winner The Square, but was also one of the (many) credited editors on the second season of HBO's Big Little Lies. He here finds just the right balance in terms of the different moods of the stories while roughly respecting a timeline that slowly progresses from just before Christmas until after New Year’s.

Runarsson and Schulsinger also nicely balance several recurring elements, such as a church location or the police, first seen in a negative light as they come for two refugees given asylum by the church but then in a much more positive light when a telephone operator at the country’s 911-equivalent dispatches them to save a kid whose parents are having a violent fight. Separately, the two vignettes are very short and somewhat one-sided, but by including both, Runarsson suggests that the reality of the Icelandic police, like many other things, has more than one side. 

The restrained but never mournful score, which accompanies the scenes without overpowering them, is by former Sigur Ros member Kjartan Sveinsson and steadily avoids the risk of cheap, Hallmark-y Christmas sentiment. At the end of the film, a multipart portrait of contemporary Iceland emerges that feels necessarily somewhat incomplete, given time constraints, but always deeply human.    

Production companies: Nimbus Iceland, Pegasus Pictures, Jour2Fete, Bord Cadre, Media Rental, MP Films, Nimbus Film, Halibut
Writer-director: Runar Runarsson
Producers: Live Hide, Lilja Osk Snorradottir, Runnar Runnarsson
Executive producers: Birgitte Hald, Bo Ehrhardt, Snorri Þorisson, Einar Sveinn Thordarson, Elli Cassatta 
Director of photography: Sophia Olsson
Production designer: Gus Olafsson
Costume designer: Julianna Laura Steingrimsdottir
Editing: Jacob Secher Schulsinger
Music: Kjartan Sveinsson
Casting: Vigfus Þormar Gunnarsson
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Competition)

Sales: Jour2Fete

In Icelandic, English
79 minutes