"Sweet Land" wins the race over "The Departed," going away.


An Illusion Reivew by Joan Ellis

                 Here’s a fine juxtaposition for this week:  a proud-of-itself Hollywood blockbuster and a humble, transcendent indie.  Whatever its miniscule budget, “Sweet Land” wins the race over “The Departed,” going away even though the blockbuster has four good actors and a world class director to recommend it. 

                The fun in “The Departed”, if you can use that word in connection with blood soaked brutality, is watching Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg playing games with underworld power.  Martin Scorsese has put bad guy weapons in their hands and directed them to use them with liberal cruelty.  For some, the whole thing is an exercise in modern depravity; for others, primarily lovers of all things that go bad on urban mean streets, it is a good yarn.

                Jack Nicholson is the guy everyone fears.  Allies or enemies, they’re all still afraid.  Not to give anything away here, we are dealing with two double agents, that most awful of human betrayals.  They are played well by Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio who have each turned from wunderkinds into excellent actors.  With relish, Nicholson has started to play Nicholson.  It’s an overheated performance, but he’s still #1.  Scorsese has told his actors to have fun with a blood bath.  Somehow, in 2006, the fun has drained out of the genre.

                “Sweet Land” has made its way through the festival circuit collecting audience applause and awards.  It is a gorgeous movie in spirit and in reality.  Written and directed by Ali Selim, it is the story of a mail order bride who is expected to be Norwegian but turns out to be primarily German.  At the end of World War I, being German in a Norwegian/American community in Minnesota is not a good thing.  First, there’s that war, then there is the problem of a rigid, harsh, and very small mid-western rural community.  The minister and the bureaucrats conspire to keep the couple from marrying and then express and encourage horror at their sinfulness.  The story meanders from 1920 through their lifetimes – all well and good.  But it will be the performances and the camera work that we will all remember.

                There are supremely lovely performances from the bride (Elizabeth Reaser), the groom (Tim Guinee), and their dear friends (Alan Cumming and Alex Kingston).  Because the bride speaks little English and the groom is so shy he speaks almost nothing, this is a film of scant dialogue that turns out to be a gift.  The audience is left free to absorb the nearly inexpressible beauty of a landscape that determines the lives of its farmers.  Watch the two use hand scythes to cut stalks as the camera rises slowly to drink in the vast fields that would take a lifetime to cut with these tools.  It speaks of beauty and bravery without a single spoken word.  If this doesn’t come to your local art house, look for it on DVD, but find it, please.


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