Thursday, October 13, 2011

Volcano (Eldfjall)

VOLCANO (Eldfjall)               B                     
Iceland  Denmark  (99 mi)  2011  d:  Rúnar Rúnarsson

This is sort of an Icelandic variation on the King Lear theme, suggesting retirement’s not always what it’s cut out to be, featuring a mammoth performance by Theódór Júlíusson as Hannes who is retiring after 37 years with the local school, where his no nonsense answer to what he would do in his spare time is that he would grow old and die.  Shot in a seaside location off the rugged coast of Reykjavik, the film opens in a prelude of displacement, highlighted by an actual volcanic blast destroying another seaside village on Vestmann Island, when the Eldfell volcano erupted in 1973, forcing an evacuation of the entire island to mainland Iceland for several months.  As Hannes and his wife soon found jobs in Reykjavik following the evacuation, they never returned to their homeland, raising a family instead in their small home, which is the site of nearly the entire film.  This is not an easy picture of happy family harmony, as Hannes is disgusted by the presence of his family, as his own children are economically successful, but are the picture of ingratitude, where he feels uncomfortable when they visit, which is largely to visit their more open hearted mother Anna (Margrét Helga Jóhannsdóttir).  Hannes is of the view that a man who shows feelings is exhibiting the characteristics of a girl, an old-fashioned, misogynistic view that doesn’t set well with the others, as the man routinely rails against the imperfect world around him, which is so overwhelmingly demonstrated that it actually shows a bit of humorous Icelandic character, as his criticisms exhibit a bit of wit and even local charm, something that would go over well in the pubs.    

There is a brief view of Hannes taking a drive out into the magnificent interior of Iceland, surrounded by jagged peaks, where he grows annoyed and frustrated at himself, apparently for not having the will to stick a hose into his mouth from his exhaust pipe.  Shortly afterwards, we see him make daily excursions out to sea in his beat up old boat, bringing back enormous-sized fish at night.  On one occasion, however, the boat springs a leak offshore, too far away from land to swim.  Initially he starts bailing the water furiously, but then slows down to a stop and instead amusingly pulls out a cigarette, as if this is his last request on earth, where he pulls deep drags from the smoke with water up to his knees before frantically starting to bail water again.  We later see his boat being towed by a rescue team while he and another are continuing to rapidly bail water to stay afloat.  The boat is eventually towed to his back yard where it sits collecting dust. But upon his return home that night, pulling off his wet clothes, he overhears his son and daughter’s assessment of his wretched and pitiful display of inhumanity, where they wonder why their mother puts up with it, as she’s usually the target of his miserablism, both wishing she’d just up and leave him once and for all.  Anna, being the more self-sacrificing, has apparently never uttered a word of discontent.  Hannes, however, sees this as an opportunity for redemption, for a second chance at life, even in this late stage.  Ironically, seemingly happy, just after enjoying her favorite meal, she suffers a debilitating stroke, leaving her nearly entirely brain dead with a slim to none chance of recovery.       

The tone of the film changes at this point, as the mix of ribald Icelandic humor has been a constant delight, easily the best thing in the film, where this man’s misanthropic attitude is hilarious, especially taken to the degree that he does, where just about everything pisses him off.  But with his wife’s illness, he tempers the worldly wrath and decides he can bring her back home and take care of her himself with the assistance of daily visits from a nurse.  Caring for an invalid is no easy task, but Hannes is driven to do the best he can for her, while his two children conspire against his wishes to have him removed from her presence once and for all and have her sent to a nursing home, as they simply loathe the man.  Hannes surprises even himself in learning to lovingly look after his wife, but continues to exhibit rather indifferent feelings towards his own children.  When they come to the house to visit their mom, however, he does enjoy spending time with his grandson Kári (Ágúst Örn B. Wigum) rebuilding his boat, which is hard work, claiming his efforts will make him a co-owner, as the boat has been passed down through generations.  This cyclical theme is accentuated by images of stark loneliness, suicide idealizations, a loving family member lying helpless in a coma, meddling children, and the natural beauty of the blustery sea which foretells the tragedy and fortitude needed to survive in this harsh and unyielding world, winner of the 2nd Prize in the New Directors Competition at the Chicago Film Festival, “a film that triggers a deep emotional response that has nothing to do with sentimentality. It juxtaposes domestic space with the dramatic Icelandic landscape to riveting effect. Not just another film about redemption, Rúnar Rúnarsson's debut depicts the moral ambiguity of the choices facing a complex, older man.”

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