Reviews and notes
2003 Transilvania, Rouen [Grand Jury Prize], Telluride, Rotterdam,
Göteborg [FIPRESCI Prize], Toronto, Edinburgh, Denver, and more
Writer-director Dagur Kari's 2003 feature debut is a tale of alienated youth set among the fjords of Iceland. Noi (Tomas Lemarquis) is a disaffected albino teen who lives with his grandmother in a snowbound, claustrophobic village far removed from hip Reykjavik. He struggles to get along with his alcoholic father, fights with the narrow-minded authorities at his high school, and pines for the pretty girl who works at the one-pump gas station. Kari combines Kaurismaki's deadpan minimalism and Truffaut's sensitivity toward adolescent yearning with a hefty dose of gallows humor, and tops it all off with an apocalyptic ending.
- Gerald Peary, Chicago Reader
An impeccably made bleak comedy with an exactly calibrated, almost musical sense of timing, Nói
is singular enough to have swept the Eddas, the Icelandic Academy Awards, and been an official selection at more than 30 film festivals, including Telluride, Rotterdam and Toronto.
is also another welcome standard-bearer for the immediately recognizable, dark Scandinavian sense of humor made familiar by, among others, the Norwegian Kitchen Stories
, the films of Finland's Aki Kourasmäki and a fine previous Icelandic feature, 101 Reykjavik
Droll, dry and delicate, it's the kind of humor that makes it hard to decide if Nói
is a comic story with tragic elements or the other way around. As its director of photography Rasmus Videbaek told American Cinematographer magazine, "We've developed this slightly 'off' way of seeing, an overall feeling of being on a different planet."
Speaking of another planet, Nói
benefits from a spectacular sense of place. It was filmed in the town of Bolungarvik, population 957, a village on Iceland's far northwest tip that is remote even by that country's standards.
Working in Super 16 millimeter, cinematographer Videbaek shows us an Iceland that looks grand, frozen and mysterious, where the constant winter whiteness defines oppressive and it is all too possible to be overwhelmed by the stark, despairing beauty of the landscape. It's a place where even normal life develops a decidedly surreal quality.
As indicated by its original title, Nói Albinói
, 17-year-old Nói (Tómas Lemarquis) is an albino high school student. At least technically he's in high school, though his constant absences frustrate both his teachers and his ordinarily detached family.
Nói lives with his eccentric grandmother Lina (Anna Fridriksdóttir), who shoots a rifle out the window near his bed to keep him from oversleeping. His layabout, alcoholic dad, Kiddi (Thröstur Leó Gunnarsson), the town taxi driver and a major Elvis fan, shows up periodically to offer fatherly advice.
When he needs to escape, which he often does, Nói goes to the local bookstore, where the crabby owner, surrounded by a forest of empty Coke bottles, is prone to read aloud nihilistic passages from Kierkegaard before throwing the book in the trash. Or else Nói retreats to a secret space under his house, an empty personal Bat Cave where he simply sits and thinks.
One of the gifts of Kári's direction and Lemarquis' performance is that we can see before the film offers proof that Nói is not a bad boy but simply a bright and bored one. And who wouldn't despair in such an environment, a place where it seems only a small step from disdain to madness and a job digging graves in the middle of winter is considered a plum position.
A trapped dreamer, Nói allows himself only two means of escape. One is a View-Master, a gift from his grandmother, through which he looks at calming shots of tropical Polynesia. The other is the presence of Iris (Elín Hansdóttir), a new girl in town who energizes his desire to leave.
One surprise of Nói
is its excellent instrumental soundtrack, playful, tuneful music by a group called "Slowblow" that turns out to be writer-director Kári and a friend. It's also no accident that one of Kiddi's favorite Elvis songs is the classic In the Ghetto
. Though the film is too knowing to come out and say it, the message that wasted lives can occur as easily in the vastness of Iceland as in the mean streets of Detroit is not hard to hear.
In his first feature, writer-director Kári shows great control over his material. He makes room for deadpan sequences, such as a high school teacher preparing mayonnaise, and nicely blends professional actors like Lemarquis with nonpros: Fridriksdóttir, who plays Nói's grandmother, delivers the mail in the director's neighborhood.
Kári even makes the film's tricky point of view — apocalyptic but somehow hopeful — one we can embrace. One of his favorite quotes, he's said, is the following from François Truffaut: "This is the third time it's happened to me — starting a film with the thought that it's going to be amusing and realizing along the way that it will be saved only by its sadness."
- Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times, 9 April 2004
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