From Iceland — Life In A Northern Town: Dagur Kári's 'Nói Albínói'

Life In A Northern Town: Dagur Kári’s ‘Nói Albínói’

Life In A Northern Town: Dagur Kári’s ‘Nói Albínói’

Published July 10, 2013

Claustrophobia. It’s everywhere in ‘Nói Albínói.’ It’s in the flailing arms of the titular character tossing rocks into the ocean, wishing he could throw himself away. It’s in the frustrated desperation of his father, suffocating Nói with his misguided attempts to help him. It’s in the dull thuds of Nói’s feet and fists, banging on the doors of every house and institution in his sub-arctic prison of a hometown as its inhabitants give up on him and fail him, one by one.
It lingers in the air around every conversation in the film, paralysing every relationship Nói has and bringing every confrontation he has to a stalemate. It confines us and crushes us with its unseen weight, from the opening shot of the nameless town with the impossibly forlorn mountain looming over it to the apocalyptic ending. There is no escape.
‘Nói Albínói’ was originally released in 2003 to positive reviews, and went on to win a slew of prizes and awards, both at home and abroad. It’s one of those rare treats that actually lives up to the hype, drawing us inexorably into a world completely of its own, and yet one that is instantly recognisable to those who know it: that of life in a small Icelandic town. However, unlike the multitude of failed attempts made at this depiction, it is not an exaggerated caricature filled with simplified messages and heavy-handed moralising.
It’s a slightly more subtle breed of film. While certainly guilty of the rampant melodrama often found in most films about talented young people trying to escape their rural homes, it takes care to deliver it in quiet simplicity rather than forcing the hopelessness of Nói’s life upon us. The weight of his confinement escalates slowly as the film progresses, with his avenues of escape petering out with whimpers rather than bangs. An allegorical scene arrives halfway through the film where Nói plays with a fly, letting it crawl up one of his arms only to place it on his opposite hand, with the process repeated ad nauseam, hypnotic and beautifully shot. Only by going the same route multiple times can the fly learn that it’s going nowhere; there is nothing blocking its way, but yet it cannot leave.
Compounding the claustrophobia is a certain vacuousness to the plot and dialogue of the film, with repeated phrases and events giving the first two acts of the film a futile, cyclical feel. Whether the simplistic conversations are intentional or not is unclear (Dagur Kári’s other two features to date have yet to prove him as a screenwriter), but the effect is the same, with the limited vocabulary making us as sick of the sound of the characters’ voices as Nói is by the time the third act closes in.
Tómas Lemarquis is reliable and effective in the title role, carefully balancing awkward teenage shuffles and averted eyes with intelligence and cynicism. Every frustrated attempt of Nói’s to escape is infused with an earnest, childlike hope, and it is to Lemarquis’s credit that he can show us multiple sides of Nói without ever seeming inconsistent.
The ever-dependable firöstur Leó Gunnarsson similarly shines as Nói’s hopeless burnout of a father, Kiddi. His pathetic attempts at intimacy with his son are always accompanied by the same desperation we see in Nói’s eyes; meanwhile, when attempting to seduce the haughty gas station attendant Íris by teaching her how to smoke cigarettes, Nói effortlessly becomes his father, all charm and smiles. firöstur and Lemarquis not only give stand-out performances individually, but are genuinely believable as father and son.
At no point does ‘Nói Albínói’ seem preachy or didactic, nor does it offer any kind of solution. Nói shoots icicles off a cliff edge with a shotgun, and the futility is as deafening as the buckshot. “Hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you’ll regret it either way,” Íris’s father quotes to Nói from Kierkegaard very early in the film, and it neatly presages the awful pointlessness of existence in the town.
However, the simple beauty of ‘Nói Albínói’ lies in how it resists every temptation to become some misguided statement on life in rural Iceland, or reminding us of the importance of family or some such nonsense. It is not about teaching us any kind of lesson. It’s not showing us how we can help, or how flawed our thinking is about this thing or that.
The town is simply a backdrop for Nói’s story, kicking and flailing against the world as the emptiness blankets everything. The film is, at heart, a character study, with every forbidding landscape and lonely house underscoring Nói’s silently desperate brooding. As character studies go, it’s about as bleak as they get, but sometimes bleakness is just what the doctor ordered.

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