Name: Joanna Komorowska
"Sparrows" by Rúnar Rúnarsson (ISL)
San Sebastian Film Festival 2015 - Main Competition
We're just breaks that disrupt the silence. Some, beautiful and mesmerizing - others, violent, horrifying and speechless – just like sparrows trying to sing through the screams of crows. Rúnar Rúnarsson – once again, after the critically acclaimed Volcano – takes us to his homeland of Iceland.
That's the new world for Ari – a sixteen year old boy who moves back to his childhood town. He's lost – his mom left him to work abroad, his father poses as a tough guy not leaving much room for feelings, his only childhood friend is out of reach. The one person he can actually talk to is his grandma. Then he meets a guy from work who introduces him to the local group of teenagers. New home, new job, new people and new experiences – both painful and joyful. Ari has to deal with all of it in a particularly raw and cruel way. At the end, his voice – both literally and figuratively – will have to confront the savage silence of killing emotions and avoiding life.
The island itself plays a role of equal importance to the other characters. It is clear that even though the story could've happened somewhere else, it would have hardly been the same. Iceland and its spirit seem to be as deeply rooted inside of Rúnarsson's way of looking at life and art as Rúnarsson is rooted in Iceland. This unique relationship of the two helps the director to create a realistic story – sometimes unbearably so – which is both strongly bounded with the island and universal.
Sparrows is strongly built on the value of sound and even more so – the lack of it. There are few words and even fewer noises, but when some happen, it's like a thunder – a stunning statement of nature or a terrifying and dangerous strike.
The way the characters relate to the deeply ingrained, traditional and almost primal violence is quite ambiguous. Embracing it is a necessary step on one's way to manhood, while denying it is seen as an act of weakness. Those who don't find it natural are automatically ostracised and brutally reminded of its constant and inescapable presence.
Sex is clearly linked with violence. It's also shown in two ways – as a medication, a quick fix for the painful reality. The other one is strictly a way of marking one's territory and – like with violence – the male's position in the herd. There's no place for love or affection, just brutal reality and looking for different ways of escaping it.
Actors are a strong point of the production – including protagonist Atli Oskar Fjalarsson, who's already featured in another one of Rúnarsson's films – 2 birds. Their performances are as minimalistic as they need to be. There are not many moments to flash but it's exactly the point – natural and without splendour works well with the rest of film's pieces – one of them being the pace of the picture.
Not surprisingly – it's slow. Pervasive images of Iceland's landscapes and a story of every day struggles makes the choice of pace a logical one, not only visually attractive but also well built – mostly on intimate close-ups, details and voyeuristic shots of the interiors. Having said that, it does drag a bit in the middle, but then goes back on track to drive viewers to the unavoidable end of Ari's childhood. The plot twist at the end caught me off guard, finishing the boy's story in a way few could have expected.
The title itself doesn't lie – as Rúnarsson mentioned in one of the interviews – sparrows are often a symbol of transition and innocence. In the end, the film is just about that – trying to find a bit o peace in a world full of expectations, where everybody screams without a single sound to be heard. It is raw, cold and painfully true.