Barnens ö (1980)
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I won't give a synopsis of the plot, because other reviewers have already done that. But I will say that I don't understand comments that it's bleak, shocking, weird, clinical, depressing or pornographic. It is certainly very unusual, which I suppose could make it seem weird to some people, but the other criticisms must reflect the reviewers' own issues, because I didn't see any of that in the movie I just watched. I'm not attracted to boys, so the nudity didn't seem pornographic at all to me--it's just a kid trying to figure out who he is with no help at all from the irresponsible adults in his life. And it's Sweden, not Utah, so topless women are no big deal.
But what surprised me most is how positive the movie is in its depiction of this gutsy lost kid who goes on a sort of Odyssey through all sorts of strange experiences, looking for--and ultimately finding--himself. It's fascinating, thoroughly original, and deeply satisfying.
I'm not at all surprised that Barnens ö won three major Guldbagge awards, for best film, direction, and actor, but I'm absolutely astounded that the actor who won was not Tomas Fryk, the kid whose fearless performance as Reine must be one of the most remarkable ever filmed, but Ingvar Hirdwall in the relatively insignificant role of Stig, Reine's mother's sleazy boyfriend. I don't understand that at all, but it doesn't alter the fact that this is a great movie.
Children's Island is the title, and what an island. In the book, Raine, the main character has The Guiness World Record Book as his own Bible. And he's keen on breaking new records himself. In particular the youngest person under water for three minutes.
The story is, as most Swedish films and books of the time, deep, consciously provocative and awe inspiring. Bergman was beginning his final film and Cries and Whispers was barely out. expectations for any Swedish film were pretty high. They taught us then that great theatre, great actors, superb writers and gifted directors made a veritable team of perfection in cinema.
All this said, Barnens Ö is a story of discovery. It is, too, a story of alienation: cities are alienating and living in one of them make us aliens to most of its residents. It is a story of revelations and sudden encounters with our own destiny. It is a film of overwhelming hope and desperation. Of feelings buried under layers and layers of isolation and insulation from a world that couldn't care less...
This approach, in itself, is a pretty difficult way to weave a convincing narrative. Here, the masterful guidance of Kay Pollak on Ola Olsson's script of P C Jersilds novel, turns it not only in a possibility, but in one of those master pieces of cinema.
I may disagree a bit with someone who said that this work was all but forgotten. It is not. Even as I write this in 2009, discussions on P C Jersild's story are conducted all over the world, and the film shown at many film schools and small theatres.
Why? Waxing philosophical on all of it would be difficult and many have already done it scholarly through writing and lectures. The reason why Barnens Ö was and IS a special story is the cosy feeling you get from the start when you discover that everything is told through the eyes of a small child. And that's where it ends, too. Maybe it's a clinical view, as someone else pointed out. But deeply disturbing, moving and satisfying. The concept is deep: as long as we have no pubic hair, we still can live one more day as an angel. Afterwards, we'll become what Raine reflects as the colophon of his experiences: "Men are Pigs". He finds his fears when he's fearless. He finds love when the world is crumbling around him. He discovers a reason not to behave like the grown-ups because he refrains from committing crimes. He let go his inner purity and confidence in others without reservation, just to learn how rotten the soul of a man can be.
Where love is expected, he finds hatred. Where compassion is needed, he finds suspicion and cold hearts. It's a film of metaphors. A film to think and to raise questions that are hard to ask but harder to answer.
In the end, the satisfaction of witnessing such a superb work (that really upped the ante for any other Swedish film after) is a ride of joy and hope. Be aware that it is a film full with the dark side of our nature. But, alas!, a film of hope and deep joy. Reine will still be an Island in Stockholm, but there is the big hope of living today in full, even when we found our first signs of sexual maturity show.
Tomas Fryk, playing the boy about to enter puberty and hating it, makes a formidable performance, and went on to do a number of other films, usually with equal brilliance. But the boy he has to portray is not altogether flesh and blood - more of an intellectual construction of slightly clinical nature.
P. C. Jersild, the writer of the book on which the film is based and sticks to quite obediently, is an MD, so to him the perspective might have made sense, but I would have found the character Reine easier to believe if he had not been so single-minded in his attitude to growing up.
The human psyche is mysterious, for sure, and often defies understanding. Therefore, so are human actions. But one thing the mind never is, is singular. Everyone contains pro and con to just about anything. Reine lacks the pro, the longing to grow up - and a convincing explanation to why he would lack it.
Kay Pollak became, however, before long known as the 'enfant terrible' of Swedish cinema as he more or less tried to bleed the Swedish Film Institute for more and more financial support of yet another pathetic picture project of his, "Love Me!" (also starring Tomas Fryk), released in 1986, and an immediate flop.
Pollak later on released a video show, "To Choose Happiness", a sort of stand up, where he discussed the subject of managing conflicts. A narcissistic female boss of mine had the staff watching it in order to manipulate us into believing that instead of reacting at her mistreatment of us, we should think as Pollak suggests: "So she hates me? Wonder what bad things I've done? Better walk the line onwards, otherwise I'll start feeling unhappy..."
As for "Kids' Island", I do suspect the enthusiasts of this film of merely being fascinated by the infamous profanity in it that was staggering even by Swedish standards. One has to feel sorry for the young actor. Did he regret being there? (After all, he wasn't as bad an actor as Pollak was a bad director: check out one of his better roles in "The 9th Company" (1987) about a military service unit where the inductees begin a large scale operation of selling out the army supply.)
It might be of interest to know that, in Sweden, documentaries or movies dealing with people exposed to various hardships frequently are referred to as "Social Porn"...