The Sea

on May 16, 2003 by Sheri Linden
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The cataclysmic homecoming has become something of a cinematic cliché, and although it may be one that lends itself well to the Nordic sensibility, the laying bare of family secrets is the most predictable, least interesting aspect of “The Sea.” In his sophomore feature, which was Iceland's submission for the foreign-language Oscar, director Baltasar Kormakur (“101 Reykjavik”) explores not just a family's disastrous reunion but the clash of local tradition and global economics, and above all achieves a powerful sense of place.

That place is one of harsh beauty: a remote fishing village on the east coast of Iceland, where the owner of a fish processing plant has called home his children to settle family business. The film opens with scenes of spectacular destruction and then moves back to trace the events leading to them. Though he drives a red Cadillac and lives in a big, modern box of a house, complete with satellite dish, Thordur is battling encroaching multinationals, whose cost efficiencies make him an endangered species. He believes he has a responsibility to the community, while his son who manages the plant is scheming to sell it out from under him, and the son and daughter returning to the village have only the most callous of interests in the business. But Thordur, who is married to the sister of his children's deceased mother, is not quite the noble patriarch, and his wife, the impassive Kristin, is at the center of dark truths that will be brought to light.

The characters are all vividly drawn, and though some of them have occasional moments of redemption, not one is truly likable. With the script and most of the actors trying too hard, there's a shrillness to this unhappy clan, especially the women--from the cognac-swilling grandmother to the money-hungry daughter-in-law to the fortysomething daughter who carries a glacier-size chip on her shoulder. But as her younger brother tells his Parisian girlfriend, explaining his bitter view of his home and his reluctance to return there: “My sister was abused before she was confirmed.” That sister is now the mother of a sullen, video-game-addicted teenager; unhappiness seems to be the one sure thing this family passes down, and there's an emotional truth to the way things play out, however overdone the histrionics. The family melodrama is, ultimately, less compelling than the mysterious beauty of a rural place in the throes of change, eloquently captured in startling images: a lone ram wandering into a gas station, a trio of reindeer blocking the path of a ladder truck on the way to a fire and, most striking of all, the stark, edge-of-the-world winter landscape. Starring Gunnar Eyjolfsson, Hilmir Snaer Gudnason, Helene de Fougerolles, Kristbjorg Kjeld, Sven Nordin, Gudrun S. Gisladottir, Sigurdur Skulason, Elva Osk Olafsdottir and Nina Dogg Filippusdottir. Directed by Baltasar Kormakur. Written by Baltasar Kormakur and Olafur Haukur Simonarson. Produced by Baltasar Kormakur and Jean-Francois Fonlupt. A Palm release. Drama. Icelandic- and English-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 109 min

Tags: homecoming, Iceland, small village, return, family drama, Baltasar Kormakur, foreign, Gunnar Eyjolfsson, Hilmir Snaer Gudnason, HElene de Fougerolles, Kristbjorg Kjeld, Sven Nordin, Gudrun S. Gisladottir, Sigurdur Skulason, Elva Olsk Olafsdottir, Nina Dogg Filippusdottir
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