In 1973, the eruption of a volcano on Heimaey, the largest of the Westman Islands off Iceland’s southern coast, forced the evacuation of the entire population to the mainland. Cursed by having found jobs easily and quickly, Hannes and wife Anna remained in Reykjavik and never returned home. In a sense, Hannes chose for them both a kind of homelessness; Anna was glad just to be with her husband, but he was haunted by the possibility that he had made the wrong decision, that he had failed Anna, and he would be given to solitary nostalgic looks at the fog-enshrouded volcano in the distance. Moreover, Hannes would cover up his nagging sense of error and failure by shutting himself off and, emotionally, shutting Anna out. Writer-director Rúnar Rúnarsson’s Eldfjall opens with a volcanic eruption (the 2010 event stands in for the earlier infernal blast) and proceeds to school janitor Hannes’s retirement party. “What will you do now?” someone asks Hannes. Damned if he knows.
Nothing seems to work for Hannes. Loyal Anna constantly irritates him; “Why are you always so grouchy?” she asks. His grown son and daughter despise his gruff treatment of their long-suffering mother. Even his young grandson cannot warm up to Grandpa. At least he can escape them all by going fishing in his rickety boat; but then the boat springs a leak and, despite his energetic effort, appears done for. Hannes has it transported by crane to his pride and joy, his garden, where he plans to work on it and patch it up. Or is it too late?
And then Hannes accidentally overhears his children lambasting him for being the miserable soul he appears to be. He and Anna tenderly make love. He tries his best and even makes her happy with halibut, which she turns into her specialty: halibut soup. During this intimate meal, which turns into a medieval failed feast, Anna suffers a massive stroke, and Hannes learns at hospital that the love of his life, in a coma racked by shut-eyed moans of agonizing pain, will not recover. Against his children’s wishes, Hannes takes Anna home to give her the benefit of his minutely attentive presence and all his indefatigable care. By degrees he may have embraced his dear Anna’s position, that his success or failure as a husband was irrelevant, and that only their mutual love and their being together—wherever—mattered. But he might have come to this realization sooner. Now, is it too late?
Totally unsentimental (even the growing rapport between Grandpa and grandson is unsentimentally handled), Rúnarsson’s debut feature devastates as one of cinema’s great revelations of male pigheadedness and late, unexpected emotional growth. It is an unusually surgical lament. Shot in 16mm and transferred to 35mm, the film has acquired a bluishness in the process (even hospital interiors seem bluish rather than white), but this may have been serendipitous given the somber mood this helps generate, and the striking use of blue apparel suggests that the predominant color was not entirely inadvertent. Moreover, the blues and bluishness contrast memorably with the fierce reds of the volcanic eruption at the beginning and the ghostly soft grays, intermittently, of the long-shots of the dormant volcano—this last, a cloudy projection of Hannes’s self-pity regarding the diminished, possibly ruined, course of his life. As soon as one bemoans that even Hannes does not deserve the children he ends up with, one realizes, of course, that the way they are reflects the way he has been. In his mid-thirties, Rúnarsson can be exactingly shrewd.
And compassionate and humane. Two beautiful performances embody this aspect of Rúnarsson’s splendid achievement: Theodór Júlíusson (best actor, São Paulo) as Hannes; Margrét Helga Jóhannsdóttir as Anna. Júlíusson is tremendous, with silent extreme closeups capturing wondrous nuances of Hannes’s emotional growth. Júlíusson and Jóhannsdóttir won as best actor and best actress at the Edda Awards, Iceland’s film industry prizes. Other Edda winners: best film; Rúnarsson, both direction and screenplay. Additionally, Rúnarsson won other best film and/or directorial prizes: Montréal; Quebec critics; Chicago; Denver; Valladolid; Transilvania—and the prize of the international critics, at Reykjavik.
I love this film; but I’ll pass on the halibut soup.
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