Of Horses and Men (Hross i oss): Film Review

Of Horses and Men - H - 2013
Icelandic Film Centre
Ruggedly quirky charmer intermittently engages and delights, but stop-start pace precludes a properly galloping narrative stride.

The prize-winning debut by writer-director Benedikt Erlingssen, co-produced with Germany, has been selected as Iceland's Foreign-Language Oscar submission.

A confident if slightly ungainly new talent emerges from Iceland in the form of award-winning stage-director Benedikt Erlingsson, whose big-screen debut Of Horses and Men (Hross i oss) is already his country's most successful cinematic export since the pre-crisis, pre-volcano days. Selected for the Foreign Language Oscar race, this strikingly good-looking if somewhat narratively uneven Icelandic/German co-production is set for a North American bow in competition at Palm Springs next month. 

Establishing its international appeal by steadily accumulating rosettes on the festival circuit since September, Erlingsson's adults-only tale of torrid passions in cold climates may appeal to adventurous arthouse distributors seeking respectably saucy, escapist exotica.

Having debuted at home in late August, the laconic ensembler picked up one of the biggest cash prizes on the festival scene a month later via the $70,000 Kutxa New Directors competition at San Sebastian in Spain. At Tallinn's Black Nights festival in Estonia last week it nabbed Best Debutant and Best Cinematography honours and wowed the international critics of Fipresci.

All this while the celebration of equine quadrupeds has been showing impressive 'legs' back in Iceland, never dipping outside the box-office top 20 and occasionally rising as high as number 2. Such domestic success is unsurprising, as the picture presents a cosily, retro vision of a proud, ancient sovereign nation still dealing with the turbulent aftermath of upheavals both geological and financial.

Because while they may wear trappings of 21st century life, Erlinggson's taciturn characters in many respects might essentially have stepped out of the 18th or 15th century. He aims to chronicle and celebrate unchanging human traits and foibles as seen in one isolated farming valley, and we might as well be in rural Ireland, Patagonia or even Kazakhstan -- or any culture where horsemanship remains a regular joe's skill. Matters of love, jealousy, rivalry and solidarity unfold against a spectacular backdrop of rolling greenery, distant mountains and vast skies. Interactions with nature are an everyday fact of life and neither money woes nor concerns with the outside world seem to intrude. 

As the title indicates, the focus is split between men (and women) and horses -- the latter sharing the billing with the former in the opening titles. Icelandic law prevents the import of foreign nags, and the sturdy, almost pony-sized Icelandic Horse remains, like so much of the nation's culture, largely unchanged since the days of the first settlers.

Horses, traditionally identified in Nordic societies as symbols of fertility, feature prominently in the enduringly influential national histories known as the Sagas -- to Icelanders, a kind of combination of Shakespeare and the Bible. Erlingsson harnesses their vignettish structure and deadpan black humor for his episodic screenplay, with its discrete little glimpses into a scattered community. It's life's rich tapestry as neatly woven in coarse horse-hair.

If there's a main strand in the sprawling weave, it concerns the tentative courtship of near-neighbors Kolbeinn (Ingvar E Sigurdsson) and Solveig (Charlotte Boving), which has evidently been simmering for some time before the action begins. The first section introduces the picture's note of poised, measured absurdity, with Kolbeinn humiliated in the saddle when his magnificent, high-stepping mare attracts unwelcome amorous attentions from Solveig's randy stallion. Kolbeinn's response is shocking, and isn't the last time Erlingsson surprises us by veering sharply into left-field -- all the more jarring given the genial wryness which generally prevails.

The writer/director's main experience in cinema before this was in front of the camera: he pops up in Lars Von Trier's The Boss of It All (2007) alongside Of Horses and Men's producer Fridrik Thor Fridriksson (a director responsible for a record six Icelandic Oscar submissions). And while so many emigres from theaterland play it safe with wordy chamber-pieces when they transfer to cinema, Erlingsson delivers a thoroughly outdoorsy, elemental experience, exhilarating in its unbridled exultation of the environment. Experienced cinematographer Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson's limpid cinematography does full justice to the majesty of these bleakly verdant expanses, finding equipoise in tandem with David Thor Jonsson's jaunty score.

Production companies:  Leiknar Myndir, Mogador Film
Cast: Ingvar E Sigurdsson, Charlotte Boving, Sigridur Maria Egilsdottir, Juan Camillo Roman Estrada, Steinn Armann Magnusson, Helgi Bjornsson
Director / Screenwriter: Benedikt Erlingsson,
Producer: Fridrik Thor Fridriksson
Director of photography: Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson

Production designer: Sigurdur Oli Palmason
Costume designer: Thorunn Maria Jonsdottir

Editor: David Alexander Corno
Music: David Thor Johnsson
Sales: Icelandic Film Centre, Reykjavik
No MPAA rating, 81 minutes