Friday, July 15, 2016

Sweet Land

Written at the time of the film's release.

Let us hope that we are all preceded in this world by a love story.
Don L. Snyder "Of Time and Memory"

This was Valentine's week and the requisite rom-com, Music and Lyrics, opened on the day to generally luke-warm reviews. I was looking at Roger Ebert's web-site, and reading Jim Emerson's half-hearted 3-star review of The Fountain that ends with him saying "but I'd much rather watch somebody shoot for the moon when the stakes are sky-high than sit back while they play it safe" and I thought only a film-reviewer who'd seen too many half-hearted, limp romantic comedies could say that.
Myself, I'd rather see a film that succeeds, however humble its aspirations.
So to find a film like Ali Selim's feature debut Sweet Land is something of a miracle. It is simple to the point of artlessness and has the genuine tone of a film where the camera is simply turned on and happy accidents allowed to fill the screen. Of course, it was meticulously planned to appear that way (14 years, in fact) but never once does this multi-generational love story tell its oft-told tale of love and struggle in the heartland in a way that feels less than fresh and improvised. Even a descent into Capraland is greeted with something of relief.
There's more to it than this simple outline, but Sweet Land tells the story of a Norwegian Bachelor Farmer who sends for a war-bride in the days following World War I. Trouble is, she's German, speaks but a smidgen of English ("Hello" and one useful exclamation of hunger) and has no "papers." Without them, their arranged marriage can't be performed and the two must get along under the watchful eyes of their neighbors, the suspicions of the church and the post-war fear of all things German (One could say it's a film for the times, but given its long gestation period one has to conclude, sheepishly, that its a film of any time). There are the inevitable complications, but ones born of the awkwardness of the situation, vagaries of the time and the realities of the harvest. One comes away with the entirely appropriate feeling that love isn't "star-crossed" and superficial, but very hard work. A refreshingly truthful idea, that. One wants these kids to work it out, despite the odds. Most rom-com's have me wanting them to get it over with.
A good chunk of the film is spoken in Scandinavian and German, never needing to stoop to sub-titles, and that is due to the lived-in performances of its two leads, Tim Guinee--explosively self-contained and reticent as the NBF--and the gifted Elizabeth Reaser, so transparent and natural an actress that she could have done the entire movie in German and still communicated every emotion economically and fascinatingly. They say that for a movie to succeed takes a lot of work and some form of miracle and Reaser is this film's miracle. 
They are supported by many marquee names, John Heard, Ned Beatty, Lois Smith and Alan Cumming, who also produced. Audiences should be grateful to him for championing this powerful little movie of the heart, with its discreet camera work, extraordinary performances and story that transcends time and celebrates place. Released in 2005, but making it to Seattle at the end of 2006, it would have been a shame to see this exquisite movie die on the vine.
2016 Update: Ten years later and I still fondly recall Sweet Land, so special is this film—not a lot of narrative, but a lot of good film-making went into telling the story. Tim Guinee has been doing a lot of television work—a LOT of television work—and Reaser has done extended work on "Grey's Anatomy," "The Good Wife" and "Mad Men," but is probably best known as being the matriarch of the Cullen clan in the "Twilight" movies. Ali Selim has done some directing work for television, but hasn't done any feature work since. 
Somebody give this man some money. Sweet Land showed the mark of a brilliant director and those are few and far between and should not lay dormant.

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