Michael Glover Smith reviews “Children of Nature” for Cine-File Chicago

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Iceland has enjoyed a relatively robust and prolific film industry in recent decades, which is all the more surprising when one considers that the population currently hovers at an all-time high of barely more than 300,000 people. The godfather of Icelandic cinema is Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, a self-taught filmmaker who is almost single-handedly responsible for the country’s impressive movie boom in the 1990s and early 2000s. His breakthrough feature CHILDREN OF NATURE, the only locally produced film in 1991, was also the first Icelandic movie to be nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Fridriksson immediately sunk his unexpected international box-office grosses into buying additional filmmaking equipment and established the Icelandic Film Corporation, which produced dozens of distinctive features in the ensuing years. CHILDREN OF NATURE ranks for me alongside Leo McCarey’s MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW and Yasujiro Ozu’s TOKYO STORY as one of the cinema’s most powerful statement about the predicament of the elderly. It tells the story of Thorgeir (Gísli Halldórsson), a retiree who is virtually forced by his uncaring family into living in a nursing home in the capital city of Reykjavik. Upon arriving there, he unexpectedly meets his childhood sweetheart, Stella (Sigríður Hagalín), who tells him she doesn’t want to die in a retirement home. Thorgeir steals a jeep and the two escape to rural northwestern Iceland, with the authorities in hot pursuit, so that Stella might be able to see again the land of her childhood before she dies. Any plot description of CHILDREN OF NATURE, however, is bound to make it seem like the kind of cute Hollywood movie about the “life left in old dogs” to which it actually serves as a welcome antidote. One of the most evocative scenes in this beautiful meditation on life, love, and mortality occurs right before the couple flees to the countryside; Thorgeir strolls alone through Holavallagardur cemetery, a remarkable location where trees grow out of burial plots dating back to the19th century. Although a realist at heart, Fridriksson’s effortless ability in scenes like this to capture uncanny visual metaphors ends up paying mystical dividends: Bruno Ganz turns up in a surprise wordless cameo at the end in what seems to be a reprise of his angel character from Wim Wenders’ WINGS OF DESIRE. For those unfamiliar with the work of Fridriksson or Icelandic cinema in general, this is probably the single best place to start.

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