There had been Icelandic movies before the 1980 release ‘Land and Sons’, but in the Saga of Icelandic Cinema they’d be the genealogies setting up the real action. What historians call the “Icelandic Film Spring” begins with the formation of the Icelandic Film Fund, the state body whose grants still effectively underwrite the domestic industry, giving local filmmakers and technicians the opportunity to gain experience while earning a living.
The first Icelandic Film Fund feature, ‘Land and Sons’ was well-received by film critics abroad, whose responses ranged from polite to rapturous, and used a lot of the adjectives (“sincere,” “worthy,” “noble”) common to most reviews of realist films depicting foreign vistas and folkways. In Iceland, it was a straight-up blockbuster—over a third of the population did their patriotic duty and bought tickets in the first few weeks of release.
But most of all, ‘Land and Sons’ is ground zero for Icelandic cinema because the themes animating the film—tradition and change, rural heritage and the lure of urban modernity—continue to reverberate through Icelandic culture in an unwavering tone.
Adapted from a 1963 novel by Indriði Þorsteinsson—father of crime novelist Arnaldur—the film was shot in the Svarfaðardalur valley, inland from Dalvík, and concerns Einar, who inherits his father’s farm during the Great Depression, as many of his debt-burdened neighbors are selling up and seeking their fortunes in the expanding urban centres of a nation on the cusp of independence.
The question for Einar, and for the film, is whether the lure of the land—of his own farm to work until his dying day, like his ancestors before him; of the pretty girl next door; of the white horse he’s so proud of—is a promise or a trap. The film is an elegy to a past that feels close enough to touch—the landscape and annual sheep round-up changed as little, between the summer of 1937 and the summer of 1979, as the hardy, homey rural homesteads the filmmakers used as sets. But despite the film’s sentimental appeal, its ending is almost shocking for being so absolute.
Writer-director Ágúst Guðmundsson was a precocious cinephile, founding his school’s film society in the 1960s, and scoring invites to Czech Embassy screenings of the European New Wave films that would inspire him to decamp for film school in the UK. Shooting on leftover film stock, with a bulky “blimp” set up around the old camera to enable synchronous sound recording, he achieved an effectively dignified, accessible style for the film, a sort of neorealism-by-necessity, with unobtrusive setups emphasizing the stately pace of country life in shadow of magnificent nature.
Ágúst preferred to cast locals rather than stage-trained Reykjavík actors for most of the supporting parts, though the leads were professionals. As Einar, Sigurður Sigurjónsson is convincingly rootless, though he would subsequently find fame in the friendlier confines of sketch comedy (and as the Icelandic voice of SpongeBob SquarePants). Sigurður returne to drama and North Iceland in last year’s Cannes prizewinner ‘Rams’, as a dour holdout still working his late father’s land, stubbornly keeping the family line alive (the family line of sheep, that is, if not necessarily humans). In a way, the story of Icelandic cinema begins with an extinction—and it’s still being told.
How to watch it: Digital rental, with English subtitles, available at icelandiccinema.com; check your local library