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New Directors/New Films: Comedy, Tragedy and Squeamishness in Iceland's Delightful 'Of Horses and Men'

Reviews
by John Anderson
March 25, 2014 1:34 PM
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'Of Horses and Men'

When director Benedikt Erlingsson concluded his introduction Monday night with a cheery “Bon appétit,” the audience at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater said, “Ruh roh.” The movie, after all, is called “Of Horses and Men.” Thankfully, the movie’s Icelandic, not French. Still -- to what culinary atrocities were we about to be subjected?

None, it turns out, just one of the more delightful imports being showcased at the current New Directors/New Films (presented by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center), and a film that represents something that’s been missing from theaters for some time: a real horse movie, of the “Black Stallion” variety (or, to a lesser extent, “Seabiscuit”). Although largely a portrait of human foible from a horse’s-eye view, it probes the essence of horse-ness, arriving at the conclusion that there’s much more between them and us than some of us want to admit (the Icelandic title is literally “The Horse in Us”).

It’s probably not a movie for kids, or the squeamish. Or squeamish kids. Yes, there’s some graphic equine sex -- and no, this is not a spoiler: The poster for the film depicts a mare with both human and stallion astride, and what’s just taken place is clear enough. But while there’s a good deal of comedy, there’s tragedy, too. And pathos. And more comedy.

Cast with Erlingsson’s colleagues from the Icelandic theater world, “Of Horses and Men’ was produced by the country’s most famous filmmaker, Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, who said he pitched it to funders as a film that could travel without subtitles. “At one screening in Norway, they asked if I wanted the subtitler switched on and I said, no, don’t bother,”’ Fridriksson said during a post-screening reception Monday night. The script, he had told the audience during the Walter Reade Q&A, was only 19 pages. “I never look at a manuscript that’s over 70 pages,” he added. “I hate dialogue.”

There isn’t much talk in Erlingsson’s film, but there are some grisly sequences. Told through a series of vignettes all set in the same rural village and among the same people, the smaller stories occasionally involve horses as the victims of human stupidity, or ego. In one, a tourist named Juan (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada), who is eager to ride the famous Icelandic horses, gets separated from his group and is stuck in a flash blizzard. Facing death, he has to kill his pony and crawl inside its carcass to escape the storm.

Given how the movie -- and Erlingsson -- made the very pronounced point that “no animals were harmed during the making of this motion picture” one would assume the horse in question was some kind of prosthetic. One would be wrong.

“We got it from the slaughterhouse,” Roman Estrada said after the screening. “It was very snug, like a sleeping bag. Also, it was fresh, so it wasn’t too awful.”

As Fridriksson said, the movie could travel -- even here, where the horse love might outweigh the gut-wrenching moments in winning over fans. The horses, after all, are innocents, even if, in all those close-ups -- shot by the fantastic DP Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson -- they seem to know a lot more than they’re letting on.

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