Writer-director Benedikt Erlingsson’s startling “Of Horses and Men”, Iceland’s official Oscar submission, celebrates an inventive cinema debut.
The film, a highlight of the first weekend of the Scandinavian Film Festival LA, plays on Saturday, January 18 at 4:50 pm.
Erlungsson’s wry dramedy, set in an isolated smallholder community in rural Iceland, is the most original first film by an actor (“The Boss Of It All’) turned director since George Clooney’s bold “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.”
Erlingsson’s harsh comedy is a rich mix of lusty wit, bone-dry humor, and rural dispatch. Passionate but without a scrap of sentimentality, it’s a horse story like no other, a paean to Iceland’s pure strain of horses. These famous pony-sized horses, developed from ponies brought to Iceland by Scandinavian settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries figure in Iceland’s earliest records. The hardy double-coated breed, bred to carry the Vikings, is used for farm work, leisure, showing, and racing. They are the only breed allowed in Iceland; exported animals are not allowed to return. The Icelandic displays two gaits in addition to the typical walk, trot, and canter/gallop commonly to other breeds: the four-beat ground-covering tölt, known for its explosive acceleration and speed, and the high stepping skeið, flugskeið or “flying pace”. Some horses are able to reach up to 30 miles per hour. Not all Icelandic horses can perform this gait; animals that perform both the tölt and the flying pace are considered the best of the breed.
A series of interlocking vignettes, featuring a recurring small ensemble of locals, ironically essays the passionate connection between horse and rider in these parts. Each story begins with the reflection of its protagonist in the great liquid eye of the featured horse.
Prosperous Squire Kolbeinn (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) grooms and bridles his beautiful “little lady”, a newly-trained mare, dresses himself in his Sunday best, then rides her across the road to court Solveig (Charlotte Bøving), another proud horse owner.
His “nearest” neighbors hunker down to watch him. The flash of the binoculars from the distant hills comment on the action.
The sturdy little mare is more than a horse, she reflects on his ability as trainer and rider. He has a right to be horse proud, as he races across the road to the approval of the watching neighbors, his “little lady” shows off the signature gaits of the breed, the high stepping tölt and the racing gear flugskeið or “flying pace.”
Eager Solveig readies herself, son and mother for his visit. “That mare is no slouch: what a beautiful gait!” says Solveig by way of greeting, as her son hitches the mare down.
The practical widow has set her cap at him. She looks him over shyly as they have tea; he suits her. A shy kiss on the cheek shows Kolbeinn’s interest.
Having achieved his goal, terse Kolbeinn saddles up and rides home, again the cynosure of the locals’ watchful gaze. Alas, Solveig’s handsome bay stallion has designs on his “little lady”, and a fence won’t deter him. For once Kolbeinn’s “good girl” won’t giddyup.
Breaking loose the stallion “courts” the mare in an absurdist ménage by default, witnessed by the watching neighbors. Horrified, and dishonored, Kolbeinn destroys the instrument and symbol of his shame, crying over her grave like a widower.
Enraged that her stallion has ruined her chances at romance, proud Soveig restores his honor with a fierce decision of her own. This time it’s Kolbeinn’s binoculars that signal approval. Courtship is rigorous in this valley
When Vernhardur (Steinn Armann Magnusson) urges his horse forward through the roiling waves, clinging to it’s mane, it’s an image out of a dream or a hero tale, although poor drink addled Vernhardu succumbs to a needlessly tragic death. Even his funeral, another interstitial ensemble scene, is used for subtle comment, as unspoken glances tell layers of story.
“Verhatder was a spirited man, an ambitious man. He was the life of every party, he will be missed in the valley”, intones the pastor. At the gravesite, Kolbeinn can’t meet Solveig’s eyes.
Grumbling old-timer Grimur (Kjartan Ragnarsson) rides his pair of horses around the land, enforcing ancient pathways and freedom to roam. Furious at one of the local breeder’s new fence he cuts it down with his wire cutter. The wire snaps back and strikes him in the eye, blinding him. Stoic Grimer uses his pair of horses to try to get home. He’s rescued by self-reliant Swedish horsewoman Johanna (Sigridur Maria Egilsdottir), who’s trumping the local trainers by rounding up a herd of wandering horses.
Fish out of water romantic Spanish traveler Juan (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada) lured by the elegant Swedish beauty, extends his trip so he can joins a trail ride in the hopes of impressing her. Lost in a snowfall, his desperate act of survival, is something straight out of medieval lore, and will stay with you.
The stubborn fence building Egill (Helgi Bjoernsson) comes to his own sad end, signaling another town funeral, and more silent glances and gossip. “Egil was a spirited man, an ambitious man…he will be missed in the valley”, repeats the pastor as Kolbeinn and Solveig exchange looks.
The smallholders gather for a round up of the pasturing new foals. Solveig puts on her lipstick and rain gear, determined to bag the valley’s most eligible bachelor. She has to hurry; one of the new widows has her eye on Kolbeinn too. Her barbed remarks and Solveig’s sharp reply are bantering metaphors about horses as are the randy couple’s love play when they wander off to consummate in the meadow, observed by the glinting binoculars.
At the community roundup where breeders select their season’s foal, Kolbeinn and Solveig find a white mare to replace his lost “little lady”. Lead by Bjorgulfsson’s camera, we wander through the milling riders and horses, at home in the many legged passeo, as eager riders seek new horses. His
camera pans up over the milling horses and riders, revealing ENDIR on the gate. Believe me, I didn’t want it to endir.
As specific as the horse-proud stories are, the rhythm of life portrayed mirrors similar holdout communities, such as the Asian steppes or Andean Patagonia, even rural Ireland or Wales, where life revolves around horses.
DP Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson’s translucent cinematography captures the beauty of Iceland’s coastal plateaus. He’s an adept at establishing comfort zones in remarkable settings. In Baltasar Kormákur’s 2012 stunner “The Deep”, Bjorgulfsson captured the eerie midnight sky over the deadly Arctic waters. In “Of Horses and Men”, he wanders among groups of horses, with the steady footing of an accomplished trainer, capturing the animals’ nervous vigilance or their benevolent grace.
David Thor Jonsson’s frisky leitmotif, mixed with folk drumming and stunning chorale music is as high steeping as the little Icelandic horses. Produced by Fridrik Thor Fridriksson (“Mamma Gógó”, “Reykjavik-Rotterdam”).
As Erlingsson explains in his Director’s statement “It is important to state that no horses were hurt in the making of this film. The entire cast and crew are horse owners and horse lovers. We might as well have been working with our children. I must admit, however, that there were some human actors that were traumatized by the experience of making the film, but they all survived… or at least they were still alive when this was written.”
Medieval Icelander warriors were buried with their warhorses. Despite their historic pride in the pure breed, Islanders are a practical people; even today the Icelanders eat their culls, resulting in a strong, healthy breeding pool. Some are still bred for slaughter; much of the meat is exported to Japan.
The film has cantered through the fest circuit picking up awards. It bagged the $70,000 Kutxa New Directors prize at San Sebastian (Spain); at Tallinn’s Black Nights festival it won the Tridens Best Film and Best Cinematography awards, and the Fipresci Prize for Best Director. Tokyo awarded it Best Director, and Charlotte Bøving won Best Actress at the Amiens International Film Festival.