Liz Taylor famously dissed her own National Velvet as a movie about “a girl in love with a horse”. I can only speculate what the last of the Studio Era’s screen sirens would have made of Of Horses and Men, Iceland’s submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Equine affection—no, not the unspeakable kind—and dependency are the bloodstream of this offbeat drama, which I saw for the second time this past January at the Scandinavian Film Festival L.A., which unfurled over four days (successive weekends) at the Writer’s Guild Theater in the golden ghetto of Beverly Hills. 2014 was the 15th edition of this modest fest, and also included were movies from the Baltic states, under the umbrella of Baltic Film Expo @SFFLA. If Sweden has historically been the 800-lb gorilla of northern European cinema, then SFFLA clearly demonstrated that Sverige‘s neighbors also deserve a seat at the table.
Most films are either plot or character-driven; much of indie cinema focuses on character development, the opposite of current mega-budget Hollywood’s Age of Spectacle. Of Horses and Men is neither. This slice of small-town life on windswept Iceland can be read as a mediation on the complex relationship between mankind—in this case, the residents of a close-knit rural community—and its most useful beast of burden.
The film contains several breathtaking sequences, some of which induce giggles—a randy stallion who will not be denied—others will make you gasp, and I refuse to spill the beans. The admittedly episodic structure works, particularly in the service of deadpan humor, but the visuals are another calling card. Director Benedikt Erlinggson luxuriates in near-fetishistic shots of horses in motion, set to a rousing score, and although the townsfolk possess cars and tractors, the motorized vehicles seem superfluous in their lives. Indeed, the equids serve as alternatives to gas-powered transport. Carroll Ballard is justly noted for his poetic visual grasp of the interplay between people and animals, but I dare say he would tip his hat to Erlingsson, whose narrative arguably blurs the line between man and beast.