28 November 2010

The Last Farm

I hope you'll pardon the fact that this review is a bit late, as I was busy seeing my family for Thanksgiving and was rarely at my computer. Still, I wanted to get something done, even if it went up a tad late.

The Last Farm (Síðasta bærinn, 2004) by Rúnar Rúnarsson is probably best known abroad for one of two things: 1. The movie was nominated for Best Live Action Short Film at the 2006 Academy Awards and 2. The soundtrack was composed by Kjartan Sveinsson, a member of Sigur Rós.

The second reason is, honestly, probably the main reason it was really noticed outside of Iceland. The film is certainly interesting and well-shot, but I don't see the style or narrative as being particularly innovative for Icelandic cinema. In fact, it sort of felt like the beginning and ending of Friðrik Þór Friðriksson's Children of Nature (Börn náttúrunnar 1991) mashed together into a new, somewhat darker narrative.

No reason not to watch it
That said, people should not hesitate to watch The Last Farm. In fact, you can watch it right now, for free, on YouTube. It'll only take you 17 minutes. Actually, here, watch it right now, and then I can talk about it without spoiling anything:

(Or click here and watch it in full screen HD. Probably the best way to go.)

Okay, so there you have it. A man named Hrafn prepares to leave his farm behind for good. His wife, Gróa, has died, and he prepares her a grave. And when the time comes, he buries himself with her.

The film is a somewhat bittersweet but ultimately sad story. Universally, we can identify with his pain. It is, at least at the global level, a love story. You probably watched it and thought he was killing himself out of the pain of losing his wife. This is certainly a possible motive, and one with which almost anyone can connect. However, I think in the context of Icelandic film and literature, there are other, more prominent motives and themes at work. Ones that are very iconic of Icelandic filmmaking.

The Icelandic Perspective
This film is, ultimately, a film about the clash between old customs and modern society that occurred in Iceland during the first half of the 20th century. Hrafn is an old man with old ways of doing things. He does not want to venture into the city to live with his daughter and her family or, perhaps, a retirement home. Perhaps if his wife were alive, this would be an easier change to bear. But alone, he cannot face it. All his life, he has known the farm. He is a true Icelander, with Icelandic ideals.

For many centuries, Iceland was subjugated by the Danish and lived in stark poverty. It was considered a sign of a good life's work if one did not have to be buried at another's expense. In a sense, to have enough money to your name to pay for your own burial and funeral was a sign of a life well-lived. Hrafn harkens back to these older values when he buries himself and his wife without bothering his daughter or Jón, the friendly man who delivers his mail and groceries. He is burying himself as an independent person, indebted to no one, not even in death, and this is a trait so characteristically Icelandic that Hrafn almost feels like a character from the mind of Halldór Laxness, Iceland's beloved novelist and Nobel laureate.

The tension between old and new, tradition and technology, and countryside and city is a major element of a lot of Icelandic storytelling in recent years, and in particular in Icelandic cinema. This issue lies at the heart of three of Iceland's biggest film classics—Land and Sons (Land og synir, 1980), Father's Estate (Óðal feðranna, 1980), and Children of Nature. In fact, Birgir Thor Møller argues in his essay "In and Out of Reykjavík: Framing Iceland in the Global Daze" that this conflict is at the heart of nearly all Icelandic films, and especially those during the first era of directors immediately following the "birth" of Icelandic cinema in the early 1980s.

However, unlike those classics, The Last Farm does not have much to add to this dialogue that has not already been said. Instead, it is merely rehashing old themes and motifs. In many ways, it seems best suited to a foreign audience interested in pursuing Icelandic cinema further, but not sure quite where to start. It provides an introduction to this thematic concept in a short, easy-to-follow film. The cultural references are not particularly dense, and dialogue is sparse, allowing us more time to contemplate the theme and motifs for ourselves.

It is definitely a well-done film, and the music is certainly beautiful, so kudos to Kjartan on that one. I would recommend it to all, but especially those new to Icelandic cinema. Veterans of Icelandic cinema will find little new here, though it is a well-told short narrative that is remarkable concise in encapsulating this oft-tred thematic avenue.

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