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Teitur Magnusson’s debut film is an exploration of domestic abuse and grief in the wilds of Iceland - from the 32nd Tromsø International Film Festival


The problem with Chekhov’s shotgun is that it only really works if you’re Chekhov. The mechanism itself is just about predictability and audience expectation. No one walks away from Uncle Vanya talking about the wonderful foreshadowing. Icelandic filmmaker Teitur Magnusson’s debut film is ambitious and technically highly accomplished but the machinations of the plot are predictable and the treatment of the subject matter of domestic abuse feels trite.

Pali (Bjartmar Einarssen) is a red haired, long bearded hermit. He spends his days fishing in the river in his pants, cleaning his Chekhovian shotgun, chopping wood (badly) and drawing owls. He’s not a scuzzy hermit, with gnarly nails and bad teeth. His house is neat and tidy and everything has what has recently been called Hygge. However, his state has been caused by a trauma and his isolation from the world is a determined retreat. It’s grief of course, but it has brushed its teeth at least. This all changes when Elisabet (Rakel Ýr Stefánsdóttir) appears at his cottage brutally beaten. Reluctantly, he takes her in and tends to her wounds, uncomfortable with this intrusion into his sterile routine. Slowly and tentatively a relationship between the two begins to develop, but all is once more thrown into doubt when Úlfur (Hafthor Unnarsson), Elisabet’s abusive boyfriend shows up full of simmering rage and transparently temporary remorse. But don’t worry, did I mention the shotgun?

Once more it’s important to acknowledge how accomplished the film is. The compositions, the landscapes, the performances are all fine. Absolutely fine. But it’s the writing. Elisabet is underwritten to the extent that she drifts from traumatised mute to magic pixie girl who wants to play tag without any discernible steps in between. Úlfur is so patently obnoxious that there’s nothing in him that looks remotely attractive to begin with. He’s an off the shelf abusive boyfriend. Pali, who the film is centred on, has a degree of depth to him. After all, he’s the one with the backstory that gives the film its title. But there is something unbelievable and precious about that very backstory. In some ways, it’s almost as if grief is being treated as a generic trope rather than something real, something authentic. The way they give Dirty Harry a dead wife to make him you know deep and single, and not gay.

It’s worth reiterating that the film is well made – Joshua Ásberg’s cinematography makes the most of the Icelandic landscape – but as it moves through the motions the artifice is too apparent and doom approaches by agreed upon stages.

The 32nd Tromsø International Film Festival runs from January 17th to the 23rd. DMovies is reporting live all week!

By John Bleasdale - 28-01-2022

John Bleasdale is a film critic and writer based in Italy. He has published a novel entitled Blood is on the Grass and a book of short stories as well as a number of articles and features. His work ha...

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