NÓI ALBÍNÓI (Dagur Kári, 2003)

A droll, humane, gentle comedy about a 17-year-old boy’s coming of age in a remote fjord village, Dagur Kári’s Nói albínói, from Iceland, reminds me, because of its sweetness perhaps, a little of Tex (Tim Hunter, 1982), a more densely plotted coming-of-age story about a teenaged boy. Both Tex McCormick and Nói Kristmundsson are motherless, but Kári’s more searching and profound film really doesn’t have a plot until its last decisive movement. It is, rather, a series of incidents from Nói’s most difficult life. Growing up is never easy, but, as in the case of Tex, adolescence has been hitting him particularly hard, and in both cases the boy’s partial orphaning, while registering, of course, the human loss involved, also functions as a kind of narrative shorthand for registering the blows with which these characters have been unfairly struck. Kári, who wrote as well as directed Nói albínói, leaves unexplained the mother’s absence, and this absence of information becomes for us, in our hearts, correlative to Nói’s feelings on the matter, for, whatever the actual explanation might be, the loss of her must be incomprehensible to Nói. The son of Icelandic poet, novelist and dramatist Pétur Gunnarsson, Kári is an extraordinarily sensitive artist himself.

As with Matt Dillon’s (marvelous) Tex, not caring about Nói is simply impossible; one feels like adopting the troubled, decent boy whom Tómas Lemarquis (best actor, Iceland’s Edda Awards) so beautifully plays. Nói’s father isn’t exactly an absentee parent, like Tex’s father; he lives in the same village and has financially supported, however meagerly, the raising of his son. But Nói lives with his elderly paternal grandmother (Anna Friðriksdóttir, priceless, such as when Lína is doing aerobics or responding with befuddlement when her grandson spills a vat of animal blood across the kitchen table)—well, perhaps; it occurs to me that this dear woman, whom “Kiddi” Kristmundsson calls “Mom” and at whom he sometimes impatiently yells, could be the mother of Nói’s mother. Kári doesn’t weigh down his film with unnecessary information, especially when withholding it allows us to feel more keenly the confusion and messiness of these lives. Both Grandma and Dad endlessly worry about Nói, about his present circumstance and his future, and with considerable cause. Both Grandma and Dad love the boy very much.

“Kiddi” (Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson, best supporting actor Edda), although he tries his best, isn’t much of a father. Life has handed him nothing but hard luck, and he drinks too much as a result, at one point prompting Nói to cut short a visit. When the boy is expelled from school (at least as unfairly as any blow has been dealt to his father), he attempts to administer corporal punishment to this big kid—childishly, since it involves throwing Nói onto the floor and applying a headlock. (His almost instant apology is, however, endearing.) He is also short of self-control when he takes an ax to his piano because his Manilow-like banging of it produces music not to his liking. Above all, he is too emotionally needy to be any sort of a fit parent. “Stand up,” he commands his son, from whom he wants a hug. The boy replies, “You can’t be serious,” and then gives in, and we love him, first, for resisting his Dad’s silly request and then for ceding to it. We easily realize that Nói is far more mature than his father—and, too, we see that Nói himself knows this.

But his school attendance is spotty at best, and Nói is just plain bored in his isolated village. He is a sharp, highly intelligent kid, but no one else around him is equally intelligent, including his teachers—and certainly not the Lutheran priest, for whom he digs graves after he is expelled from school. (An irascible teacher gives the headmaster an ultimatum: he will resign if Nói isn’t expelled—and the headmaster makes the wrong choice.) We glean Nói’s restlessness from the fact that he so often cuts short doing one thing to do another or being at one place to be at another. Now that Íris is working at the counter of the local gas station, Nói pretty much wants to spend as much time as possible with her. He dreams of fleeing the fjord with her, but at a critical juncture she won’t agree to do this. Since above all else he wants to get away, he takes off, in an appropriated vehicle, on his own.

This immediately follows one of the film’s loveliest and funniest passages. Armed with a shotgun, Nói enters the village bank and demands money. But no one there will let this boy whom they know, whom they have watched grown up, rob the bank. They treat the whole thing as a joke! The teller ignores Nói’s request; the bank president confiscates the weapon and ushers Nói out, warning him that if he tries such foolishness again he, the banker, will call the police. Here, as elsewhere in the film, with incidents involving Nói and other villagers, we glean the complexity of the communal context to which even an iconoclastic loner like Nói belongs.

One of the other villagers with whom Nói routinely interacts is Íris’s father, who sells books and magazines. Another very funny passage finds the shop owner mocking Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or before tossing out the book as worthless. (It is implied that Nói takes the copy home.) The passage that is getting his goat is the one in which Kierkegaard declares that doing one thing or its contrary (such as hanging oneself or not hanging oneself) generates the exact same result: regret. Yes, we laugh at how this man self-congratulatorily dismisses a fundamental truth about life from the single greatest mind of the nineteenth century (because the theologian-philosopher was Danish, not Icelandic?); but not so funny is how everything in Kári’s film bears out Kierkegaard’s bold proclamation. Lives proceed from what life is, not from “choices” we make that we delude ourselves into believing matter. (Incidentally, this is the point that Robert Frost ironically makes in “The Road Not Taken,” but shallow intellects have long assigned to the poem the opposite meaning!) In this context, in one of the film’s master strokes of insight, Nói’s father’s denial of personal responsibility—at a fever pitch of hilarity when he explains that he drinks because his tooth aches—reveals his underlying commitment to the myth of self-determination, hence the denial, hence the degree of guilt and shame that has overtaken his life. (The whole point of denial is that one actually believes in whatever one is denying.) Nói knows better; he knows that life is stacked against him and, therefore, he is untainted by the yukky self-pity that consumes adolescents in U.S. films, such as the ones that James Dean and Natalie Wood play in Nicholas Ray’s ridiculous Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Nói sees life for what it is; American teenagers—at least those in American movies—egoistically see only themselves. Not once in the film does Nói feel sorry for himself over anything that befalls him; even when he pleads for reinstatement at the school, he does so because his expulsion, he says, “will kill my father.”

There is an omnipresent symbol in the film for the non-negotiable nature of reality, Nature, environment—whatever you care to call it. This is the huge, snow-clad mountain that, depending on the light, appears to be real or spectral, faint in the background or a hovering presence. In a variation on Kasimir Malevich’s astounding oil painting White on White (1918), Kári visually portrays the village and, by extension, its people as being overwhelmed by the whiteness everywhere surrounding them, pressing in on them. The one time that Nói fires his shotgun, he is taking aim at shingles of ice. He is attempting to retaliate against a white reality into which he finds his consciousness dissolving. Of course, we cannot help noting the low level of pigmentation in his skin (hence, the film’s title), which suggests Nói is more vulnerable than others to being absorbed into the whiteness, its chill and non-differentiation. But this turns out not to be the case, for, in fact, his awareness of the danger, his especial intelligence, his grasp of Kierkegaard all fortify him in ways of which he himself is unaware. At the end, after he is back in the village courtesy of the police, there will be an avalanche that kills ten. Nói “miraculously” survives.

I should add one more thing about the predominant use of white in the film’s visual scheme. It makes every little bit of color, by contrast, precious—this, heart-piercingly correlative to the value of human existence and everyday life for Kári. Nói albínói is a spirited, unusually (because actually—non-rhetorically) affirmative film. What else can explain how full of hope it leaves us despite the enormity of its tragic denouement?

Nói albínói won numerous international prizes for young Kári, for both writing and directing, and he won Eddas for both chores, as did the film as the year’s best. Kári’s essential collaborator is cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk.

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