One of the first scenes in ‘Echo’ seems rather familiar in the context of Icelandic cinema. Man returns to the farm he grew up on, but now as a representative of the city. Instead of moving back into the old family abode, he sets it on fire, intending to import prefabricated housing to build a guesthouse. He also offers to buy eggs from the neighbour for money, disrupting the barter trade of the locals. And yet, things seem a little bit off. The metaphor is a bit too strong, almost parodic. It soon becomes clear this is a rather different kind of film.
Drunks play Matador
Instead of following the fate of small-town folk, we soon return to Reykjavík. Polish workers are cheated of their wages. A mother proudly looks on as her daughter practices dance moves. We then see a parade of fitness contestants. Drunks play Matador (Monopoly) and haggle over down payments on housing no one can afford. Characters are introduced and then never appear again. This is probably a first in Iceland—an episodic film. Echoes (pun intended) of Roy Anderson abound, who in recent films has explored the drab downside of the Swedish social-democratic paradise.
But Rúnar Rúnarson’s third film can perhaps be said to have more bite. After introducing some of those worst off in Icelandic society, we peek into other segments. There are no clear winners in late-capitalist Iceland. Some have it harder than others to be sure, but there’s no easy villains. A seemingly well-off man drinks expensive wine with his TV dinner alone on Christmas Eve while he looks at his phone. Another has a fight with his family over the purchase of a Christmas tree.
Two traumatic weeks
What ties everything together is the most traumatic two weeks in the Icelandic calendar: the last two weeks of the year leading up to Christmas and New Years. A geothermal hothouse farmer begs for an extension of his overdraft so that he can give his children a happy Christmas but is turned down. An elderly woman takes her grandson to the graveyard and tells him this is where everyone goes in the end.
‘Echo’ is an admirable antidote to the common perception of Iceland as a nature-loving utopia. There is perhaps nothing more Icelandic than the pre-Christmas, hyper-consumerist rush, which is then followed by manic overindulging that everyone is supposed to enjoy but few probably do. Two men argue over the merits of the Minister of Finance, one storming out with his minuscule party hat still on, ranting that nothing will ever change unless someone says something, though it is not clear the ranting has improved society very much.
In a way, this can be seen as a companion piece to Ísold Uggadóttir’s excellent ‘And Breathe Normally,’ but whereas Ísold attempted to capture society by zooming in on two women, one local, the other immigrant, Rúnar goes for a more panoramic view. We also get a glimpse here of refugees being deported after seeking shelter in a church, although the idea that the bishop would support their cause is one of Rúnar’s most cruel jokes.
Deserves to be seen
At 79 minutes, ‘Echo’ does not overstay its welcome, and the ending is nothing short of masterful. The day after the party, and the first baby of the year is born, as depicted with footage from a real live birth. One cannot help but feel sorry for the poor child with all this in store. ‘Echo’ won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it deserves to be seen.
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