The 12th Scandinavian Film Festival L.A. (SFFLA) returns to the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills with a strong selection of Scandinavian Oscar Submissions and a baker’s dozen of handpicked films highlighting Nordic Cinema at its best. Founder- Director James Koenig (classical singer, poet, author was decorated as a Knight of the Order of the Finnish Lion for his work with the American Scandinavian Foundation of Los Angeles. Koenig’s boutique festival is my favorite festival of the year, two weekends packed with great films, great guests, a Scandinavian Cafe and the gracious, humorous Koenig himself.
This year’s selection Includes Thomas Vinterberg’s latest, “Submarino”, a complex, interwoven, dysfunction drama; the entire Daniel Alfredson Millenium Trilogy (“The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo, “The Girl Who Played With Fire” & “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest”); Dagur Kari’s boozy English language bar-fly ballad “The Good Heart” starring Brian Cox and Paul Dana); Louise N.D. Friedberg’s chilling “The Experiment” about Denmark’s social conditioning experiments conducted on Greenlandic children in the early 50’s (not unlike our BIA Indian boarding schools); Dome Karukoski’s fundamentalist coming-of-age melo “Forbidden Fruit” ; Hans Petter Moland’s “A Somewhat Gentle Man,” a low key larcenous black comedy, starring Stellan Skarsgård, that was nominated for the Golden Bear at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival and won the Berliner Morgenpost Audience Award; Saara Cantell’s “Heartbeats” which uses long handheld shots in vignettes to explore several generations of Finnish women; Michael Madsen’s frightening documentary “Into Eternity” about underground nuclear waste repositories; Lebanese-Swedish director Josef Fares’s crowd pleasing immigration comedy “Balls”, which had Sweden’s highest grossing opening weekend-eclipsing “Avatar” and Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog”; Christoffer Boe’s paranoid, Pakula- influenced political thriller” Everything Will Be Fine” and a selection of animated and live action shorts.
“Steam Of Life” Joonas Berghäll and Mika Hotakainen’s lyrical documentary has the emotional punch of a narrative film. Finland’s first documentary to be entered as their Oscar Foreign Film submission, it is also entered in the Oscar documentary competition. Using the sauna as a backdrop, a series of anonymous men open up in conversations about the challenges of their lives. Saunas have always been a spiritual gathering place to the Finns, a place to wash the body and the spirit. In a wacky variety of saunas, from tents at campsites, trailers at workplaces, a phone booth, a mine, private and public saunas, men stripped of all class distinction; open them up with immense dignity- talking of dysfunctional families, estranged children, divorce, friendships tested to the extreme, tragedies they couldn’t prevent. Sincere, sympathetic, alternatingly heartwarming and tragic, the men’s’ emotional strip tease trumps the sight of their naked bodies. Ironic framing, beautiful cinematography, a rousing musical number, and flashes of unexpected comedy pry open our hearts to the films unexpected emotional wallop. A group of house call Santas knocks back a beer, and, still in Claus garb, complains about their shabby treatment at some houses. It’s a wry moment. When a bear’s head pops into frame it’s a moment of real time vaudeville. The ending, a composite musical number of all the men we’ve seen, now dressed and in their typical surroundings, is surprisingly moving. With the earnestness of a children’s choir, men, of all stations of life, sing the beloved song from the Finnish novel “Seven Brothers’, a song learned in school by every young Finn. It’s too beautiful.