Mamma Gogo -- Film Review

Icelandic drama about Alzheimer's offers the definitive word on the subject.

Icelandic cinema has drawn more media attention in the last few years. This year's Oscar submission from the country, "Mamma Gogo," verifies the vitality of that emergent industry.

As it happens, the movie deals in part with the film business in Iceland. It opens with a brash director (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason) at the premiere of his new film, which he has conceived as a tribute to the older generation in his society and to his mother (Kristbjorg Kjeld) in particular. Writer-director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson has admitted that the picture is semi-autobiographical, touching on his own checkered career as well as his mother's Alzheimer's disease. A mixture of showbiz satire and piercing drama, Gogoturns familiar tropes into a bracingly original movie that will enthrall audiences willing to take a chance on the painful subject matter.

The film begins with a series of choice comic moments. The director's confidence in his latest opus is undercut when he visits a huge theater playing his movie and discovers a rapt audience of approximately 20 people. As he stumps for the movie, his mother takes care of his young son, though she's clearly losing some of her faculties when she blithely ignores her grandson swigging a bottle of booze. Later that night, however, when Gogo is stopped by a policeman for drunk driving, she shrewdly suggests that his breathalyzer is broken by advising him to check her grandson's breath as well. When the young boy also fails the test, the cop agrees that the equipment must be malfunctioning and apologizes to Gogo. Over the next several months, her condition deteriorates more dramatically, and her son is forced to put her in a nursing home. These poignant interludes are interspersed with the director's growing financial problems, which are amusingly paralleled to the teetering economy of Iceland.

The two lead performances anchor the film. Veteran actress Kjeld is remarkably expressive in both the comic and dramatic scenes. In the later sections we can see her struggling to understand conversations that are beginning to elude her; the helplessness she conveys without a word of dialogue is searing. In the less showy role, Gudnason matches her. It's heartrending when he tries to explain to his mother how much she has meant to him, while recognizing that she may no longer be able to comprehend his words.

Another asset of the film is the superb cinematography by Ari Kristinsson. Scenes in which Gogo visits her husband's grave in the snowy, majestic countryside are breathtaking to behold. The film is tightly, perfectly modulated until the finale, which may be a little too oblique to maximize the film's impact. But this minor miscalculation cannot really mar one of this year's strongest foreign film contenders.

Production: Bavaria Film International
Cast: Kristbjorg Kjeld, Hilmir Snaer Gudnason, Margret Vilhjalmsdottir, Gunnar Eyjolfsson, Inga Maria Valdimarsdottir, Olafia Hronn Jonsdottir
Director-screenwriter: Fridrik Thor Fridriksson
Producers: Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, Gudrun Edda Thorhannesdottir
Director of photography: Ari Kristinsson
Production designer: Arni Pall Johansson
Music: Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson
Costume designer: Helga I. Stefansdottir
Editors: Anders Refn, Sigvaldi J. Karason, Tomas Potocny
No rating, 84 minutes