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Niceland is the most recent film from Iceland's master filmmaker, Fridrik Thor Fridriksson and it is a brilliant piece of work. In 90 minutes he manages to capture the emotional essence of life as it is lived and life as it should be lived, both, making us feel happy, amused, sad, hopeful, joyful. The poignancy of the story is so finely tuned and so intelligently crafted that it would be difficult to think of another current film (this is from 2004) that does what this one does.
Playing like an allegory, Niceland's cast is comprised of Scottish and Icelandic actors; the leads are, in fact, Scottish and a good number of the supporting actors are Icelandic. What's both amusing and irritating is that Fridriksson has English subtitles when everyone speaks English! The viewer gets the feeling that this was done to spoof foreign films that require subtitles; another reason, however, is to slightly jar the viewer--i.e., is this a foreign film or isn't it? If it is, where is the setting? There's only a single tiny hint that this may be set in Iceland which is when one TV is playing, the viewer hears people speaking in a language that is definitely not English. But all other times, English is spoken--by the characters and by whoever's on the TV (TV figures quite a bit in the film).
Jed and Chloe, young 20-somethings, work side by side in a factory and are somewhat intellectually challenged--Chloe, for example, feels that the purpose of her life is her cat Catey. But it is just this not-quite-normalcy of these two leads that gives this film its tremendous poignancy. We discover as well that Jed's parents have some problems in their marriage--the father sells TVs for a living--and also that Jed ultimately becomes convinced that he must obtain the purpose of life--of life for both him and Chloe together--from a man named Max who is interviewed on TV and claims to know the purpose of life--although he won't just come right out and say it.
Jed goes to find Max and Max, as it turns out, is a much more complex character than he initially appears to be. The very well crafted interactions of these three characters--Max, Chloe, and Jed--and some of the other characters who surround or support them--Jed's parents, his friend Alex, Chloe's mother--are all interwoven so delicately and so thoughtfully that to miss this film would be a real crime.
The allegorical nature of this film, and its two young leads, recalls a somewhat similar American film, Pleasantville. Although the latter is without question a different film, there is a kind of eerie similarity in that we definitely feel that we are in some kind of familiar yet surreal alternate universe kind of "anytown", where people are subtly exaggerated versions of the archetypal/stereotypical folks we've met before in other films, novels, plays, or maybe even in real life. This allegorical/surreal haze that delicately colors the proceedings lends the film a unique quality that one would, I think, be hard put to find in many other films. Aside from Pleasantville, nothing else comes immediately to mind.
This is a terrific comedy-drama with subtle elements of fantasy and surrealism that absolutely demands a wider audience. I managed to see this in April 2005 in New York City at a film festival of Scandinavian film (one of the great things about being in NY City is the astounding diversity of available films).
Very highly recommended; one of the best films of 2004, no question.
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