Monday, January 22, 2007

Sweet Land

SWEET LAND (Ali Selim, 2005)

Saddled with two suitcases, a phonograph, and a nebulous grasp of the English language, German immigrant Inge (Elizabeth Reaser) comes to Minnesota to marry Norwegian farmer Olaf (Tim Guinee). Set in 1920, the couple-to-be in SWEET LAND encounters an unimagined problem in the post-World War I environment. The locals are suspicious of Germans and use their prejudice to block the marriage. In their minds Inge could be a spy or corrupter of morals. As the banker Harmo (Ned Beatty) observes, she has devious eyes.

With the wedding on hold for the foreseeable future and cohabitation forbidden by Minister Sorrensen (John Heard), Inge is placed in the home of Olaf's friend Frandsen (Alan Cumming). The bustling farmhouse is the one spot in the community where she is welcomed unconditionally. She's treated as though she were a member of the family, and Frandsen's wife Brownie (Alex Kingston) assists Inge with learning her new country's ways and language.

Although appreciative of her new friends' generosity, Inge traveled to America to take a husband. One night she slips into Olaf's house for a bath that isn't administered in front of the whole family. The next morning the quiet farmer is shocked to find her in his home, but he agrees to let her move in. She can take his bed while he will sleep in the barn's hay loft. Finally together, although not under the same roof, the couple begins their slow romance. Community opinion fails to bend at what is sill viewed as scandalous behavior.

SWEET LAND'S love story is told via flashback. Inge and Olaf's grandson Lars (Stephen Pelinski) reflects upon the history of the family homestead now that his grandparents have passed. Developers are ready to present him with a handsome $2.2 million check for the property, but the tug of the land's story makes it difficult to sell.

Director Ali Selim tells Inge and Olaf's romance in simple and modest terms while infusing it with an undercurrent of passion. The style befits the firm, hardworking characters who communicate the depth of their feelings through glances and gestures more than words. Reaser and Guinee's restrained performances hint at the interior lives that the times and circumstances would not let be shown. For modern audiences exposed to unclad bodies on a daily basis in the media, it can be hard to understand how the glimpse of an ankle might make the heart race, yet Selim and his actors make the period real and relatable.

Beautifully photographed by David Tumblety, SWEET LAND is a love story not only between two people but also humanity and nature. The golden tones of the fields and crisp blue skies reveal the glory of creation and what it provides. The film breathes when the characters are on the gorgeous natural stage and clenches when manmade obstructions interrupt it. (Note the way the camera traps Olaf and Frandsen in the frame when Olaf storms out of church after he and Inge are censured from the pulpit.) SWEET LAND values interconnectedness--in a couple, among a community, with the land, and with ancestors--and powerfully illustrates it within the story's emotional and visual content.

Grade: A-

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