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In recent years, Icelandic cinema has started to gain world recognition. Spearheaded by the export of the films of Iceland's premier movie maker, Fridrik Thor Fridriksson (Cold Fever), this fledgling film industry is developing an international reputation. Tears of Stone, from director Hilmar Oddsson, tells the story of Jon Leifs, Iceland's most celebrated composer, and was filmed in both Iceland and Germany.
Jon Leifs (Throstur Leo Gunnarsson) made his reputation as a conductor and composer of "modern music" during the 1930s in Germany, where his wife, Annie (Ruth Olafsdottir), was a celebrated pianist. The couple had two daughters, a quiet adolescent named Snot, and a lively six-year old, Lif. As depicted in this biopic, Jon is completely devoted to his youngest child, taking her for long walks, buying her violins, and promising that he will never leave her -- a promise he is eventually forced to break.
The early portion of Tears of Stone focuses on the struggle between the pragmatist and the artist within Jon. His passion is to compose, and he finds himself bursting with music, but conducting is what pays the bills. As long as his wife is working, however, Jon can stay cloistered in a small, dimly-lit room, scrawling notes on paper. But, as the Nazis gain power, Annie, a Jew, finds work increasingly difficult to come by. To avoid compromising his integrity and reputation, Jon returns to Iceland, leaving his family behind. When he comes back to Berlin to protect them against the rising anti-Semitic tide, he is faced with a monstrous choice between collaborating with the Nazis or risking the three people that he loves.
Like almost every well-constructed Holocaust drama, Tears of Stone is ultimately about sacrifice and loss. No one, not the Jewish Anna or the Aryan Jon, escapes from Hitler's reign unscathed. Jon does what he has to do to save his family, but, ironically, loses them because of his actions. And, while this film lacks the gut-wrenching emotional impact of a Schindler's List (Tears of Stone is more melodramatic than hard-hitting), it forces us once again to confront the blackest era of modern history and the many individual tragedies that comprised the whole.
Some of the most poignant moments of Tears of Stone involve Jon's interaction with Lif. Young and naive, she cannot grasp why she, as the child of a Jew, is considered a foreigner in her own country. She doesn't understand the hatred and prejudice that will sever her from her home and eventually part her from her father.
One of the great strengths of Tears of Stone is the fine Icelandic exterior cinematography by longtime Kieslowski collaborator Slawomir Idziak. His amber-filtered shots of the sea are majestic -- the waves look like yellow glass or polished gold, undulating and alive as they crash upon an ice-littered beach. No other images in this visually satisfying movie are quite as vivid. There are times when such photographic excellence compensates for the lead actors' uneven performances.
The title Tears of Stone refers to a child's story that Jon tells Lif. A lost troll, searching for home, is unable to reach his cave before dawn. When the sun's first rays touch the troll, he is turned to stone, as is the single tear that he sheds. Jon carries a polished stone in his pocket that he says is the troll's tear. According to him, "whoever carries this stone will always be able to find his way home." It's ironic that, for most of this film, Jon and his family look for, but don't find, a place they can call home.
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