Friday, April 24, 2009

Int'l Film Festival 2

White Night Wedding

It’s a type of greatness we come upon too seldom—light humor filled with wisdom and affection. Chekhov’s works often have this quality, and the Icelandic film White Night Wedding, based on the Russian playwright’s seldom-performed Ivanov, brings that same combination of virtues to the screen with true bravura. The landscapes are stunning, the lighting is beautiful, the characters are charming and idiosyncratic, the pacing is deft, and even the most absurd bits of physical humor—sinking rowboats and golf balls in the graveyard—ring true.

At the core of the farce, though not its most compelling character, is Jon, a handsome if slightly graying professor of literature. In the opening scene he’s wrapping up a complex and perhaps even evasive lecture on the ethical stance exemplified by a literary character the class has been studying—an analysis with which Jon himself seems a bit bored. One of his young female students challenges him on the point—Is life really that complicated?—and the scene is set.
Jon’s wife is an artist, a bit high-strung and moody, taking medication for we know not what. She implores her husband to pay more attention to her, and the couple agree to return to the island where she grew up to start afresh.

As it happens, Thora, the student who had spoken up in class, is also from that island, and her parents own its only pub and general store.

A one-year time shift brings us to the impending May-December wedding of Jon and Thora. In a series of flashbacks we learn piece by piece what happened to Jon’s wife. That strand of the tale is a dark one, and it gives the film a bitter edge; in fact, we spend much of the film wondering if Jon is simply a cad. But the cast of secondary characters make a remarkable ensemble of eccentrics, and they buoy the plot from the moment we arrive on the island. Among them are the island’s premier handyman and entrepreneur, who enlists Jon’s help in a wild scheme to lure tourists to the island with a golf course; Thora’s mother, a battle-ax who beheads puffins with relish and rubs everyone the wrong way; Thora’s father, a former opera singer and a bear of a man who is kindness itself; the hapless local priest, so deeply unloved that even his own hair has fallen out in an effort to escape; Jon’s obese alcoholic buddy who has arrived from the mainland to play the organ at the wedding; and Thora’s somewhat “slow” sister, who minds the store. Most of the film takes place in the open air, and many bottles of wine are consumed in the course of the final twenty-four hours before the nuptials are to take place.

With White Night Wedding, director Baltasar Kormakur has crafted a light but almost seamless masterpiece on the order of Nikolai Mikhalkov’s Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano, or, (dare I say it?) The Rule of the Game.


A slow-moving tale from Poland about a young boy who has never met his father, but carries a photograph in his pocket that convinces him that the man appears at the railroad station frequently. His much older sister denies it, though her behavior suggests it’s true. Much of the film is devoted to incidental events involving a flock of local pigeons and the sister’s attempts to learn Italian and get a job with the local multi-national firm, which are undermined repeatedly by her tag-along brother’s meddling. The boy himself becomes obsessed with the man on the platform, and attempts to take matters into his own hands. Lots of silences in this dreamy but intriguing work.

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