To many, Iceland is an exotic destination, a snowy paradise blessed with natural wonders (read: hot springs). It’s startling, though, that even the most educated sorts will openly, and only a bit ashamedly, admit to not knowing exactly where this island nation is located. (For the record, it’s 500 or so miles northwest of Scotland in the North Atlantic, just south of the Arctic Circle, and a speedy under-five-hour direct flight from New York.)
For six years now, Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital and cultural center, has hosted a medium-scale (in international, not local terms) film festival. Despite the crippling economic crisis that hit last September, this year’s edition yielded more films (over 100 features) and its largest audiences to date. And those in charge expressed determined optimism that the show will go on. (In her program-guide intro, Festival Director Hrönn Marinósdóttir notes that it was certainly a sign of the times that the fest has outlived the banking giant that had been a major sponsor in years past.)
These days, with so many similarly intentioned festivals to choose from worldwide, the RIFF, though still a fledgling, is a refreshing surprise. First off, its level of hospitality was exceptional: in addition to the gracious festival staff and locals, there was a special event called “Home Movies,” which found three directors, including Fridrick Thor Fridricksson, perhaps Iceland’s best-known cinematic export, inviting audiences into their living rooms to watch and discuss their favorite movies. And, in honor of Milos Forman (in town to accept a lifetime achievement award), President of Iceland Olafur Ragnar Grímsson opened his lovely residence’s doors to press and filmmakers for a champagne reception.
Another surprise: the five-person jury, led by Danish actress Iben Hjejle, was comprised entirely of women—fittingly enough given the strong female screen performances this year. Most notable was the pairing of Kerry Fox and Anamaria Marinca in Hans-Christian Schmid’s gripping political thriller Storm (out now in the U.S. courtesy of Film Movement). Fox plays a no-nonsense prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague who teams up with the sister (Marinca, almost matching her eye-catching work in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) of a Bosnian witness recently driven to suicide. Their cause: to bring to justice a commander of the former Yugoslav National Army responsible for the death and suffering of many Muslim civilians in Bosnia 15 years earlier. It’s a seemingly doomed case, but watching the process is nothing less than fascinating.
On a showier note, commanding Danish star Paprika Steen gives her rawest, bravest performance yet in Martin Pieter Zandvliet’s Applause as a narcissistic stage actress, Thea, whose life closely mirrors the character she is playing nightly: Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Ouch. The film smartly evokes just how lonely it can be on stage—and for Thea, life offstage is anything but a collaborative process. She’s habitually selfish and offensive, smokes and drinks too much, and has lost not just her husband but custody of their two young sons. She desperately tries to pull her life together, but finds self-control far more challenging than any acting role.
Even in supporting parts, it was the girls who stole the show. In Rune Denstad Langlo’s North, a slightly off-kilter Norwegian odyssey-of-masculine-self-discovery tale, Jomar (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), battling with depression, hits the road on his snowmobile in search of a daughter he’s never met. Jomar’s in practically every frame, yet it’s the bored teenager (Marte Aunemo) he meets along the way and who takes him in like a stray that provides the film’s most animated moments.
In Swimsuit Issue, another male-centric film, about a group of lovable misfits who find purpose in competitive synchronized swimming despite barely being able to keep their heads above water, it’s the protagonist’s teen daughter (and the team’s coach) who occupies the film’s emotional core. Directed and co-written by Måns Herngren, the film’s an absolute charmer and, along with Patrick 1.5 (another feel-good pic from Sweden), provided the necessary antidote to the mostly downbeat themes that inevitably dominate any “serious” festival’s selections. On paper, Patrick 1.5 sounds like it could fit that bill: a gay male couple who have trouble adopting a baby are finally approved—but a paperwork typo brings them not an 18-month-old toddler but a delinquent, homophobic 15-year-old. Surprisingly, it plays out a bit like a fairytale, and you wouldn’t want it any other way.
Dead Snow. This alone is reason enough to return for more next year.