Sweet Land (2005)
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The movie creates a palatable tension between doing what you need to do to fit in with your community (what you're "supposed" to do) and finding love with someone who is different (what you should do).
That message resonates in today's political climate.
A funny, poignant, wonderfully acted movie, Sweet Land has the confidence to treat us as if we are intelligent. It lets us fill in the blanks and trusts us to understand what's going on without telling us everything. While this makes us work a little rather than sit back and be spoon fed the entertainment, the effort is well worth it.
For example, when characters speak German, instead of using subtitles, the filmmakers know we'll get the gist of the scene - even though we don't get the exact verbiage. Selim lets the emotion carry us and it works. This is delicate work but it's handled with care and talent.
Sweet Land is about how love is stronger than fear.
Very, very good movie...the kind they don't make in Hollywood. I'd compare it to Jean de Florette and the sequel Manon of the Spring. It's a simple story with complex emotions where the smallest details, like someone taking a huge bite of potatoes, say a lot.
The visual images in this film are simple, yet breathtakingly beautiful in their composition. It is a rare masterpiece with amazing use of time, depth and perspective. The development of the romantic tension between the main characters in the love story was so powerful and yet so subtle, that it was like a fresh breath mint on a cold January morning.
The used of time and flashbacks is amazing, and the editing and pace of the movie is very accomplished for an independent, low budget film. I will not be surprised if I hear about this move at Oscar time.
There is scarcely a false step in this film. Elizabeth Reaser brings Inge to life completely believably and very poignantly. We truly care about this woman, a fact made all the more astonishing when we realize that for a sizable part of the film she speaks in languages most of the American audience will not understand. It's one of the best performances I've seen in a long time. Similarly convincing is Tim Guinee as Olaf, her perplexed husband-to-be. His struggles to overcome prejudice (his own and that of his neighbors) are played with a delightful mix of humor, pathos, and inner strength which mirror the complex set of forces with which he must deal. Much the same could be said, albeit on a smaller scale, of the lesser parts; these performers inhabit these roles as if they had already lived them for real. Watch the interactions between Alan Cumming and Alex Kingston, for example; these are two people who are deeply and genuinely in love, but who recognize and accept the flaws of the other. There is no conventional 'happy marriage' insipidity here-- with the result that their marriage comes across as truly happy in a far more profound manner than so many others on screen.
Visually the film is often lovely. It is not as lusciously filmed as Terrence Malick's 'Days of Heaven', with which it shares an underlying approach, but it also avoids the occasional glossiness which undercut the down-to-earth elements of the earlier film's plot. Here the images rarely feel forced, and never overwhelm the intense sense of physical presence so vital to both plot and message. Also powerful is the use of two framing stories, linked to but not dependent upon the central plot. Indeed, the emotional climax of the film actually resides in the contemporary story, something we will not realize until almost the very end of the film. What seems a mere narrative trick suddenly resonates with tremendous power, and brings home the film's central theme beautifully yet without undue emphasis.
The flaws are few. The music, usually vaguely folksy without being especially engaging, is more than once rather too modern in its feel and too diffuse in its impact to support the visuals. The music is the weakest element in the film; at times it sounds almost as if the decision to add music was taken so late in production that all that was possible was some improvisational doodling, which fits neither the delicately shaped mood nor the careful pacing and structuring of the action. The important part of Minister Sorrensen is a bit awkwardly written, with his changes of outlook being rather too sudden; John Heard's performance, though thoughtful, could likewise be more nuanced (he was probably responding to the part as written, but in this case he would have been better off to play against the script).
'Sweet Land' is a beautiful, funny, and often very moving film, with a deep and respectful sense of history and human relations. Both the action and the thoughts it provokes will linger long after the curtain closes. The film has much to offer, and I recommend it very highly.
We confront outrageous instances of religious, ethnic and political bigotry, and the cruel predations of wealthy money lenders who don't blink an eye when pressing foreclosures, ruining families who have sat elbow to elbow with them at church every Sunday for years. But we also see examples of kindheartedness, longing for love and gradually dawning romance, individual integrity and group justice, not to mention hilarious moments, both intentional and unintended.
Inge (Elizabeth Reaser, a luminous beauty) is the stalwart German woman who comes to marry the reticent Olaf (Tim Guinee), who had thought she was Norwegian like him, since she came from a town in Norway. Olaf is a character straight out of a Garrison Keillor monologue: he's the quintessential shy Norwegian bachelor farmer.
Inge, on the other hand, is deferential only because she can't speak English or Norwegian, only German, and that only with the church pastor, Rev. Sorrensen (John Heard), who refuses to conduct the wedding because Inge has no citizenship papers and, ironically, he is suspicious of her German roots, in a time when anti-German sentiment was still at a peak following WW I. Once Inge's got a handle on language, she starts to show her pluck, for, beneath her stunning physical beauty, Inge is in fact a forceful woman.
Comic relief is afforded in a marvelous turn by Alan Cumming as Frandsen, another - and altogether inadequate farmer. Rather than actually work at farming, Frandsen would much rather entertain his wife and nine kids, and his friends, with funny gestures and tunemaking. Cumming's performance reminds me of Ray Bolger as the scarecrow in Wizard of Oz, or Håkan Hagegård, as Papageno in Bergman's "The Magic Flute," or some of the masters of physical comedy in the silent film era. Rounding out a superb cast are Ned Beatty as Harmo, a ruthless banker, and Alex Kinston as Frandsen's wife, Brownie.
Director Ali Selim, a native of St. Paul, Minnesota, had a highly successful career making commercials for television before undertaking this picture, his debut feature narrative film. He worked from a short story by Bemidji writer Will Weaver, called "Gravestone Made of Wheat." The movie was shot on location in a rural area of southwest Minnesota. This film will leave you laughing and crying. It is a treasure. (In English, German and Norwegian) My grades: 8.5/10 (A-) (Seen on 12/26/06)
Most of the first half of the movie deals with Inge trying to cope with a hostile community where she barely speaks any English (it's not really explained very clearly, but Inge is a mail-order bride from Norway but she's actually German who's been living in Norway). Her husband-to-be Olaf, is a Norwegian-American who is unable to communicate with her in German (it appears that he can speak Norwegian and so can she--well at least I thought I heard her speak some Norwegian during the film) but they choose not to because the town minister insists that she only speak English. So quite unconvincingly, when they are alone, they never converse in Norwegian which would probably help her to learn English a lot faster.
Reaser does a good job at showing how difficult it is learning a new language and there are some scenes that are fairly compelling as Inge and her hard-working farmer-husband learn to love each other. But beyond that what do we find out about the characters in this film? Well there's Olaf, who's a bit of a Stoic but also a real good guy who saves his best friend's farm by bidding for it at an auction (even though he doesn't have the money!). And of course there's the minister, who is caught up in the anti-German hysteria of the day and gives Inge a real hard time. But of course, he's really not such a bad guy after all because eventually he inexplicably comes to accept her. And in fact, all the neighbors, who at first appear as though they're going to start a witch-hunt against Olaf and his potential bride, suddenly have a change of heart and actually give Olaf the cash to buy his best friend's farm which prevents the family from being evicted.
1920 Minnesota doesn't prove to be much of a bad place after all--not a bad apple amongst the suspicious neighbors who all turn out to collectively have hearts of gold. It's comfortable like a Hallmark Greeting Card but does not bode well for good drama which needs more of a sinister protagonist to keep things interesting. As we step back into 1920, we feel the author only has a superficial sense of what it was like to live back in that time. Oh yes, there's a nice attempt to recreate the look of the period with the old Model-T cars and gramophones but without in-depth characters, the film ultimately proves to be an exercise in sentimental storytelling.
I will add a totally irrelevant note. I had the pleasure of actually working in theatre with two of the minor characters during my college days in the 70's. Also, some fine work by Guthrie Theatre alums. See this film. You won't be disappointed.
The film begins with what you think are two Norwegian women arriving in America to marry mail order husbands. However, one has arrived for a man who has rescinded his offer and the other isn't Norwegian--despite her ability to speak the language. She is, in fact, German--a rather unpopular thing to be in 1920 considering that WWI recently ended. While it IS true that there was lots of discrimination against German-Americans during the war (including riots), the reaction of the townsfolk seemed ridiculously overdone. First, the minister refused to marry her and her fiancé. Then, she is ostracized. Finally, after moving in with her fiancé (as she has no place else to go), she is attacked from the pulpit for living with an unmarried man--though HE refused to marry them. I just couldn't buy it--and also felt it was just a clichéd attack on ministers (an easy target for some filmmakers). What also bothered me was how DUMB everyone but the woman seemed to be. No one seemed to have the least notion that they should teach the woman English or how to do it. Speaking loudly or telling her the wrong names for animals were a few examples of how this rural town in Minnesota seemed to be inhabited by idiots alone. Yes, there must have been a serious language barrier, but the notion NO ONE in Minnesota could speak Norwegian (Minnesota was settled by the Swedes and Norwegians--many of which would have been first generation back in 1920) seems ludicrous. And, while Germans weren't super-popular, you'd think someone would know more than two or three words of the language. Minnesotans are not dumb people--but here, they are narrow-minded and just plain stupid.
"Sweet Land" could have been so much better had there been a few small changes. First, there is no sense of humor and the film is just too grim and slow. I am NOT talking about inserting Don Rickles into the film but it was just so dreadfully serious--and life is not that grim unless you live in a gulag! Second, the characters needed depth and likability. Only Inga (the German lady) was likable but that was also a problem because it painted everything in a black and white swath. I just couldn't get into this film, though I tried.
Set soon after World War 1, in a time when we knew the difference between good and bad, still had real heroes, played Baseball and believed that tomorrow would be better than today, the movie is a phenomenal commentary on what it is to be an American. It tells a story of "simple farmers with honest dreams" who are struggling to become English speaking Americans as small town mores and governmental paranoia work to keep them apart. It has a kind of "Days of Heaven" vibe, but I actually liked this more than Malick's film. The light and photography are great (nice to see someone using film again!) and a lot of the frames are composed like paintings - the spirit of American Gothic is evoked more than once.
The lead actress, Elizabeth Reaser is great - she wears her entire inner-life on her face and communicates the whole of her emotional spectrum with a look, a nod or a raised the eyebrow without ever going over the top or getting overly-sentimental.
But perhaps the film's greatest strength is the fact that the filmmakers never stooped to sacrifice their character's humanity to make a political point. Yes, the message of this film is timely but often times with material like this, filmmakers have a horrible tendency to impose their will on the characters and either get condescending or put words in their mouths. It was wonderful that all involved here trusted the material enough to not do that.
This film deserves more a lot recognition than it's getting. It's a damn shame.
Olaf is aloof and possesses a strong desire to become more American, avoiding the use of his foreign tongue. He is visibly embarrassed by Inge who is clearly alien in her language and attire. Inge, a German, is also feared by much of the town who have a lingering anxiety toward Deutschland. She does, however, find kindness in the home of hapless farmer Frandsen (Alan Cumming) and his wife Brownie (Alex Kingston).
It will be no surprise to viewers that the two begin to warm to one another, but how they get there will be. Olaf is almost immediately attracted to the beautiful and kind Inge, but it takes time for him to fall in love. Their consummation is deferred, but it is during this time that the two begin to admire and then fall for one another. The final moments before their consummation--occurring off-screen--are the most passionate filmed moments of the year.
The cast is uniformly excellent, including John Heard as a rigid pastor and Ned Beatty as an unforgiving banker. The performances by Reaser and Guinee are kind and assured. Reaser as Inge delivers a particularly strong performance. Through much of the movie we cannot understand what Inge is saying--she barely speaks English--but Reaser expertly conveys exactly what Inge is feeling. These relatively unknown actors will stun you and completely win you over by film's end.
"Sweet Land" is one of the year's best film's.
Technically it is a joy to experience. Please, see this on the big screen if you get the chance. The cinematography was breathtaking, costuming fit each character very well, makeup was pleasantly simple, (didn't look like they were trying too hard to make them look without), the sound was nicely balanced, complimentary score, good use of natural light, lights and shadows, believable props, and all this set in the perfect location.
Lovely and touching; a film experience you will remember at least a 5 tissue movie. I highly recommend!
And Thank you to everyone who was involved with this project. Bravo!
Example: In this very strange first generation Norwegian-American community, no one speaks Norwegian. How many first generation immigrant communities do not speak their native tongue at least amongst themselves? None.
Example: The actors are supposed to be speaking German and Norwegian at one point. But because no one seemed to care to teach them (even if only phonetically) actual dialog, they spout gibberish that is suppose to sound Norwegian and German.
Example: The anti-German World War One feelings are so high that the community refuses to accept the lead female character. But by the time of the story, the war had been over for four years. The losing Germans were no longer the enemy. The anti-German feelings no longer existed...especially from new immigrants. Norway did not battle the way the French and English did.
Example: Two of the major characters played by Alan Cumming and John Heard have no motivation to do what they do, except that it advances the story in the direction the filmmakers want to go.
Example: The one nude scene is totally gratuitous. Who takes a bath in the living room at four in the morning and then falls asleep in the tub? Only the bride-to-be of a farmer who is so dumb that he fails to see her and instead washes in the yard would know.
These are just a few of the "sloppy" problems of the film. There is the slide show, the auction, the size of the wheat field, the bankers, the neighbors...You get the picture.
If you have an overwhelming need to see Elizabeth Reaser's backside, then you will enjoy this film. Otherwise, you're just wasting your time.
Gawd I hope this film makes money!