Palm Pictures // 2003 // 90 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // February 15th, 2005
Is he the village idiot, or a genius in disguise?
Living a life of quiet desperation during a seemingly endless winter of his discontent, teenager Nói feels isolated and alone. This is not unusual for most boys his age -- adolescence brings with it the pains of awkwardness and self-loathing. In his case, however, Nói may actually have a valid, viable point. He lives in a small fishing village on the coast of Iceland, a bleak, barren place with one or two buildings, a few fussy townsfolk, and a lot of snow and cold. Living with his slightly deranged grandmother, and occasionally visited by his constantly inebriated father, Nói wants nothing more than to escape. School does not interest him. Work does not concern him. All he wants is someplace warm, where palm trees blow in balmy breezes along a gentle, rolling surf.
One day, Nói rolls into the local gas station to buy his daily bottle of malt. Instead of the usual, brassy cashier, Nói meets Iris, the daughter of the local bookseller. He shares his dream of a sun-filled getaway with this new acquaintance, and slowly, a more personal bond develops. Soon, our unhappy lad is ready to leave. All he needs is some cash, and someone to make the break with him. But finding either item may be harder than he originally thought, especially with the frigid temperatures turning everything and everyone static with its chilling charms. It may take more than a foolish act, or a willing girl, to get Nói out of his own personal Hell. Indeed, sometimes, something earth shaking must occur to destroy a deep-seated malaise.
Iceland might as well be located in another galaxy all together from the looks of Nói, the fascinating, fresh film by native son Dagur Kári. Writing and directing with a deft hand and a keen eye for how to handle everyday life, this amazingly dense, incredibly visual wonder is like a slice of social sci-fi. Because this icy, frozen country is so completely foreign to us, and the language and customs virtually unrecognizable, we get the sense of both logistical and emotional dislocation, a funny feeling of being strangers in a surreally strange land. Understanding that an audience will only accept the bizarre and the quirky for so long before balking, Kári then laces the rest of his film with a kind of pragmatic passivity. He allows the everyday life of Icelanders to unfold in carefully observed vignettes, making the sum total far more meaningful than the individual moments seem to suggest. From a daily visit to a gas station, to a grandmother's gradual senility, Nói presents arenas of experience that most of us have an idea or association with. Yet because of the place and the people, we view them through a veil of eccentricity that is mesmerizing and memorable.
It has to be said up front that Nói is a testament to time. While it breezes briskly by at a mere 90 minutes, we experience a kind of temporal trap throughout most of this magnificent movie. We become unstuck in reality, unaware of the passage of minutes or seconds, and this allows the images to burn more brightly, to resonate more deeply inside our minds. Kári is an artist with the camera, giving us indelible sights that we won't soon forget -- the large snow-covered mountain that looms over the village; the rainbow shooting across a patch of ocean; Nói standing in a graveyard during a blizzard. Yet when he is not filling the screen with visual wonder, Kári is also exciting us with ideas and inferences. Nói is really about existence being a state of mind. For the title character, Iceland is Hell, a frozen wasteland where his interests and ideas are dulled and slowed by the constantly decreasing temperatures. He is a country boy with big, bold ideas. Unfortunately he is locked along a far-off fjord, away from the city and its civilizing properties, so naturally, no one understands him. While he may be guilty of playing on that peculiarity, director Kári makes it clear that there is nothing for Nói in his village. But where he will go is also a question, since we receive no other frame of reference. It is as if we too were trapped along with him.
Along with the alien ambience, there is also a very subtle shot at the mentality of the small town. Nói lives among people who know him and his family by name, accept their neighbors like members of their kin, and stay mired in manners and traditions that appear shocking or retarded to the abject outsider. But Kári cuts through all the eccentrics by recognizing the power of personality and pop culture. Nói's alcoholic father is obsessed with Elvis, while a bookstore owner does his own self-censorship, tossing out tomes that aren't clear in their thoughts or presentation. For every oddball dancing to their own distant drummer in the corner of a room, there is an insightful slice of inspiration that keeps the film from floating off into a shallow world of whimsy.
Credit must be given to Tómas Lemarquis, required to handle the difficult task of playing the pale, near albino-like Nói (the film is actually called Nói Albínói in its native tongue). Having to straddle the competing concepts of the simpleton and the savant -- there are hints throughout that he is one or the other -- and required to sell the majority of this movie with merely his face and body, the performance is pitch-perfect. Lemarquis never lets his gaunt guard down, keeping his character as much a mystery to us as he is to the rest of his village. Among the members of his immediate family, Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson is fascinating in the formulaic role of the dead-drunk dad. While it's hard to feel sympathy for this stern, sloppy souse, Gunnarsson strives to bring the character's humanity to the fore. As the goofy grandmother, Anna Fridriksdóttir manages the remarkable. She takes the tired, mentally unbalanced cliché and creates an entire internal universe for her to live in. Every move, every element of the portrayal is flawlessly unforced. Even Elín Handdóttir, given the rather thankless role as Iris the object of desire, brings a nuance and a naturalism to her performance that is hard to ignore.
Indeed, this entire film plays like an exercise in capturing authenticity unaffected while staying strongly in the magic realism realm of ideas. Indeed, there are two or three moments throughout Nói where you'll wonder just what Kári was considering when he added a particular situation or circumstance into the movie mix. But after the amazing ending, which seems to suggest that something far more cosmic is at play here, Nói more or less explains itself. This is really a film about thinking the world revolves around you, and having that notion proven right. It is a clear-cut contemplation of what would happen if, one day, all the barriers you saw for yourself just magically disappeared. Nói is a story about wish fulfillment as a personal journey of self-discovery and sacrifice. But most importantly, it is a look at another place, another part of the planet that feels completely foreign, but ends up being just like everywhere else -- well, sort of. Everyone, at some point or another, has felt alone and unappreciated. In Nói's case, it is a part of both his internal and external reality.
Palm Pictures' presentation of this fine film on DVD is also first-rate. Kári uses a consistent pigment palette of washed-out greens, grays, blues, and whites throughout, emphasizing the otherworldly and deathly cold circumstances in which the characters exist. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer captures this frigidity and flatness flawlessly. There is some minor pixelation during a couple of night scenes, and you will witness grain as part of the stock elements of the movie, but the print presented by Palm preserves Kári's carefully crafted visuals in all their artistic glory. Equally amazing is the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix. Much better than the standard 2.0 Stereo (also included here) at capturing the howl of the wind, the crunch of snow under shoes, and the utter vastness of the spaces presented, the aural excellence shown by this channel challenging attribute is magnificently moody.
As for extras, we get a collection of deleted scenes (Nói is stopped by the cops for drinking, Nói's teachers argue over his intelligence) with director Kári providing an introduction and explanation, as well as a 30-minute "making-of" featurette that goes into even more detail about how the director came up with this project. Originally conceived for another medium (Kári suggests a possible comic book) and based solely on his personal image of the title character (the tall, gangly youth with the incredibly pale complexion), Kári is very analytical about his approach to filmmaking and his visual ideas. Almost as good as a commentary (Kári speaks in his native tongue, with English subtitles), this featurette gives us a glorified glance at how an astonishing movie was formulated and filmed.
Relentlessly inventive, with more atmosphere than other movies of a similar style, this minor masterpiece is well worth checking out. Iceland may seem like a territory unto itself, an ice-covered carnival of idiosyncrasies located in another hemisphere on a whole other planet. But the people there are just like everyone else: they have their heartaches and their daydreams. They may just be a little more melancholy about it than most. Nói knows this all too well, and his cinematic namesake illustrates it effortlessly.
Review content copyright © 2005 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Icelandic)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Icelandic)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes
* Behind-the-Scenes Featurette
* Palm Pictures Presentation