Films about aging and the elderly are not that prevalent in Hollywood’s yearly production schedule of new films for obvious reasons. It is not a subject that most moviegoers seeking escapism, especially younger viewers, want to contemplate. It is also a risky commercial proposition unless the film is a heartwarming drama with broad appeal (Driving Miss Daisy, 1989) or a feel-good comedy like Harold and Maude (1970), which was a box office flop on its initial release before it went on to become a profitable cult hit. Of course, some of the undisputed masterpieces of 20th century cinema have focused on senior citizens like Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D (1952), Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), and Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) but these are not mass appeal attractions but the favorites of a niche art house audience. Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s Children of Paradise aka Born Natturunnar (1991) is certainly a film that belongs in this latter grouping but is distinctly different in tone, combining social realism with deadpan humor and a touch of magical realism.
Oscar Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, Children of Nature is unique for being the first film from Iceland to receive an Academy Award nomination (It lost to Gabriele Salvatores’ Mediterraneo). It also stands out from other films about elderly people at the end of their lives due to Fridriksson’s low-key approach which is observational and untheatrical in the film’s first half. There are few big dramatic moments, a minimum of dialogue and a complete absence of calculated sentimentality. Yet, the underlying themes are universal such as a sense of loss, nostalgia for the past and contemplations of your own mortality.
The film opens with Thorgeir (Gisli Halldorsson), an elderly sheep farmer who is seen preparing to leave his rural home. He packs a few belongings to take with him in two suitcases, performs a mercy killing of his elderly dog (not graphic) and takes a bus to Reykjavik to stay with his daughter and her family. Thorgeir’s unexpected arrival takes them by surprise and they temporarily put him up in the teenage granddaughter’s bedroom. The teenager’s resentment at being ousted from her own room creates tension among the family and Thorgeir is soon persuaded by his daughter to relocate to a nearby nursing home where he is forced to share a small room with Halldor (Rurik Haraldsson), a friendly but delusional man who talks about a non-existent son. Life looks dreary indeed inside this prison-like facility but Thorgeir’s attitude changes when he encounters Stella (Sigridur Hagalin), a childhood girlfriend who proves to be the resident rebel.
A strong bond quickly develops between Thorgeir and Stella and Children of Nature transitions into a road movie at the forty-five minute mark as the elderly couple escape their confinement, hotwire a car and drive north toward their childhood home, intent on seeing it one last time. Even though the police are on their trail for being suspected car thieves and for disappearing without notice, the couple manage to elude capture and bribe a fisherman (Kristinn Agust Fridfinnsson) to ferry them across the water to Stella’s abandoned home where they set up housekeeping. None of this is depicted in an overtly comedic or dramatic fashion. Even the subtle melancholy music score by Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson is sparsely used.
The result is an elegant, austere viewing experience that highlights the plight of nursing home shut-ins without heavy-handed editorializing but balances it with an almost magical alternative for senior citizens who want to control their own destinies. Fridriksson accomplishes this by contrasting the sterile, claustrophobic setting of the nursing home against the wild, untamed splendor of Iceland’s volcanic landscapes and natural beauty. The fugitive couple also experience exhilaration and a sense of freedom over their spontaneous road trip which involves sleeping in strangers’ barns and eventually leaving modern civilization behind.
As Thorgeir and Stella travel further north, there are little signs that their journey is far from ordinary. When they avoid a police roadblock and are pursued by a cop car, their stolen Jeep appears to vanish in the mist. Equally mysterious is their ferry ride to the island when they see a strange woman – or is it an apparition? – on the rocky coast welcoming them. Also, the finale of Children of Nature finds Thorgeir exploring a deserted WW2 bunker on the cliffs where he appears to encounter a ghost or possibly an angel (a brief, wordless cameo by Swiss actor Bruno Ganz in a possible homage to Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, 1987).
Gisli Halldorsson and Sigriour Hagalin are perfectly cast as two childhood friends grown old with Halldorsson’s unflappable man of few words the ideal foil to Hagalin’s more outspoken and rebellious heroine. They may be stubborn, set in their ways and impulsive decision-makers but both emerge as sympathetic protagonists as opposed to kooky, lovable caricatures.
The film’s seemingly unlikely progression from documentary-like reality to surrealism is handled in a seamless manner through Fridriksson’s contemplative, almost Zen-like visual approach (The cinematographer is Ari Kristinsson). It all unfolds in an eighty-two minute narrative that shares some similiarities with David Lynch’s equally offbeat portrait of old age, The Straight Story (1999), in which a 73-year old man (Richard Farnsworth) travels a long distance via a rider lawnmower to visit an ailing brother (Harry Dean Stanton). Admittedly, some viewers may find Children of Nature too slow and deliberate in its pacing to maintain their interest but others will appreciate the film’s understated compassion and wry humor.
Children of Nature received a brief, scattershot release in the U.S. but still managed to garner praise from a few high profile film critics like Vincent Canby of The New York Times who wrote, “Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s new Icelandic film considers death as the perfectly natural, inevitable end of the life cycle, not something to be ignored, feared or artificially staved off. The film has a narrative of sorts, but its effect is that of a documentary about an ancient ritual rediscovered…Children of Nature is an intelligent film, not easily categorized. Neither Geirri nor Stella is a character in a conventional sense. They are representations, figures in a modern myth that is dramatized in settings of spectacular, chilly beauty.” In addition, Hal Hinson of The Washington Post deemed the film “ a poetic little character study that, according to its own modest terms, is just about perfect… It’s a chamber piece, one with passages of sublime beauty and feeling.”
Even though Fridriksson is considered Iceland’s most prominent living director, his films are still relatively unknown to American moviegoers despite a few of his titles receiving theatrical distribution in America. Cold River aka A Koldum Klaka (1995) is a typical fish-out-of-water character study in which a Japanese businessman (Masatoshi Nagase) travels to Iceland to perform a burial ritual for his deceased parents who died there. The quirky culture crash comedy also features Lili Taylor and Fisher Stevens in cameos as a quarreling American couple.
Another film, Devil’s Island aka Djoflaeyjan (1996), enjoyed a brief art house run and dealt with a storyline about several Iceland families living in barracks that had been abandoned after World War II (a historic detail that is also referenced in Children of Nature). Both Devil’s Island and Cold River were film festival favorites and multiple award winners but Children of Nature is possibly the best introduction to Fridriksson’s distinctive directorial style. He is currently at work on Kill the Poet, a drama about the political persecution of artists during the communist witch-hunts of the forties.
Children of Nature was released on VHS by Fox Lorber in 1997 but is sadly in need of a DVD/Blu-ray update at this point in time.
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