Thursday, September 27, 2007

"Sweet Land"

Last night I watched one of those quiet, indie films that obviously didn't have a big budget or flashy publicity run-up, but nevertheless can leave an indelible impression on those lucky enough to see it. No doubt this film made the rounds of the "artsy" and "indie" theaters around the country and I'm sure it played one of the City's numerous smaller theaters that eschew the glitz of blockbuster offerings. "Sweet Land" tells the story of a bachelor Norwegian farmer living in Minnesota shortly after World War I. (Fans of Garrison Keillor will recognize the "bachelor Norwegian farmer" character from stories about Lake Wobegon. This story, however, is not about humor or stereotypes.) In "Sweet Land" a mail order bride arrives to marry a Norwegian farmer. However, the fact that this bride is of German descent nor has valid immigration papers makes marriage an impossibility, particularly given the wave of anti-German sentiment that swept across the country during this period.

Based on the short story, "A Tombstone Made of Wheat," this film is at once a love story between the farmer and his bride and a look into the prejudices and limitations of ordinary people. At the same time, "Sweet Land" examines the connection to place - and the land itself - for this couple and their descendants. In an age in which family farms are disappearing at a rapid pace in favor of large-scale agri-businesses, this look into the hard and lonely lives of individual farmers on the prairie offers a stark reminder of that way of life. It even addresses - albeit obliquely - the theme of farmers vs. bankers in a sub-plot more recognizable in a story drawn from the Great Depression. And if one listens closely there are even the whispers of the old-fashioned populism that had galvanized American farmers in the last quarter of the 19th century. Add the stark beauty of Minnesota and an excellent cast that includes Alan Cumming, Alex Kingston, and Ned Beatty, as well as Tim Guinee and Elizabeth Reaser in the lead roles, and one has a great little film that doesn't have much in the way of special effects, but shines in terms of pure storytelling and lovely cinematography. It really is one of the most poignant films I've seen in a long time, and likely bears another viewing just so one can absorb the more subtle details of the spartan dialogue.

Given Blockbuster's habit of marketing the more mind-numbing fare offered by Hollywood, I was surprised to find this tucked onto shelves dominated by ad nauseum copies of the latest action films. I guess its presence was management's nod to NYU's neighborhood presence and the possibility that denizens of the East Village might just wander in. If you're a fan of quiet films in which telling the story takes precedence over blowing up cars or saving the world from aliens, I heartily recommend "Sweet Land."

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