Those who envy New Yorkers for the breadth of cultural experiences available in the Big Apple will now have another reason to turn green when they learn that Scandinavia House in midtown Manhattan offers a full range of the best in recent Nordic cinema, including a number of firstrate films from Iceland.
On Wednesday and Friday evenings from late March to early June, New Yorkers can see firstrun films from Finland, Demark, even the Faroe Islands, as well as Iceland. Among the offerings are some of the best films to come out of Iceland in the last couple of years, and include two very off-beat comedies and a remarkable documentary.
Now, if your only exposure to Icelandic culture is its ponderously impressive heritage of great literature, you could be forgiven for thinking that humour in general, and “quirkiness” in particular, are not dominant traits in the national gene pool – until, that is, you began to watch a bit of Icelandic television and cinema, where funny-farm personalities of the widest range of social maladaptation and personal dysfunction are on regular display.
Leading the pack of loonies would have to be Georg Bjarnfreðarson, the stridently authoritarian, selfeducated radical leftist whose brittle personality has for some years now been the bane of his hapless workingclass sidekicks in the immensely popular TV series that has changed name and setting to delight viewers as Næturvaktin (The Night Shift), Dagvaktin (The Day Shift), and finally Fangavaktin (The Prison Shift). These smashhit sitcoms (now issued on DVD for collectors) combine the folksy downhome loopiness of the Canadian series Corner Gas with a biting satire of the muchvaunted classlessness of Icelandic society.
Following on the success of this TV series, director Ragnar Bragason gambled that viewers would want to see more than half an hour at a time of this social mayhem, and created a film around the central character, Georg Bjarnfreðarson, providing a back story to his personality development and giving him free scope to express his open mental conflict with the modern world in a feature-length format. The gamble obviously paid off, as Icelanders flocked in droves to see the film which made cinematic history as the only film in the entire world to outgross James Cameron’s Avatar in its local market at its Christmas release in 2010.
Perfect for the role is lead actor Jón Gnarr, whose recent entry into politics has only added to the interest in his onscreen character. Gnarr won the Reykjavík municipal election campaign by inventing the “Best Party” and putting out a music video with his fellow party candidates patterned after the studio recording videos of British rock royalty that come out every Christmas. Running on a platform that included a promise to make the national Parliament drug-free by the year 2020, he easily defeated the opposition – who never even saw what hit them – to win the mayor’s chair.
King’s Road (Kóngavegur)
If Bjarnfreðarson is Corner Gas for those who read The Guardian a bit too much, then King’s Road (Kóngavegur) is Trailer Park Boys for those who watch a bit too much Seinfeld.
Internationally acclaimed film editor Valdis Óskarsdóttir (The Celebration, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) takes to the director’s chair for the second time in this off-beat comic curiosity, after her directorial debut in Sveitabruðkaup (Country Wedding), shown at the Gimli Film Festival in 2009.
The film features an ensemble cast of some of the most recognizable faces in Icelandic cinema – Kristbjörg Kjeld, Ingvar Sigurðsson, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson among them – as well as Daniel Brühl (Inglorious Bastards, The Bourne Ultimatum) in the role of the prodigal son returning home after threeyears abroad.
The story takes place in a trailer park situated somewhere vaguely in the Icelandic hinterland, a kind of forgotten no man’s land like the curious apartment building out of place and time that forms the setting of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s delicious