Gentle period piece about the heartland harvests love and prejudice
Director: Ali Selim
Cast: Alan Cumming, Ned Beatty, Lois Smith and Elizabeth Reaser
Opens: Jan. 26 at Landmark’s Inwood Theatre.
1 hr. 50 min. PG
Sweet is just the word for “Sweet Land,” which begins with the thought, “Let us hope that we are all preceded in this world by a love story.”
For a few minutes, the film hops around among three time periods. But the scenes in 1968 and the present soon subside, leaving us in 1920 where we follow a slightly off-kilter story of immigrant romance. It’s almost like “The New Land” meets “Stranger than Paradise.”
Based on a short story by Will Weaver, writer director Ali Selim’s debut introduces us to mail-order bride Inge Ottenberg (Elizabeth Reaser) as she arrives in Minnesota by train with two little suitcases and a big gramophone.
Two men eventually come to fetch Inge, who speaks almost no English. When she realizes which one she’s betrothed to, she’s initially disappointed. Olaf Torvik (Tim Guinee) is serious and quiet, unlike his friend Alvin Frandsen (Alan Cumming), who tries hard to make Inge feel welcome.
Because Olaf lives alone and unmarried, cohabitation would be shocking. Instead, Inge goes to stay with the Frandsens, including Alvin’s wife Brownie (Alex Kingston) and their nine children. The hoped-for wedding is delayed when Rev. Sorrensen (John Heard) learns Inge is German.
“Martin Luther was German,” Frandsen reminds him.
Everyone else in the community is of Norwegian ancestry. And Germans, the enemy in the recent war, are viewed with suspicion. Legal efforts to obtain citizenship for Inge are unsuccessful. And parallels to contemporary immigration problems are not just in your imagination.
Local banker Harmo (Ned Beatty) initiates foreclosure proceedings against Frandsen (again, feel free to make contemporary parallels), and Inge moves into Olaf’s house, although he sleeps in the barn and she doesn’t let him see her naked.
At harvest time, many neighbors pitch in to help each other, yet the amount of divisiveness in the close-knit community is surprising.
The framework sequences involve Inge’s (Lois Smith) grandson Lars (Patrick Heusinger) when Olaf dies (Paul Sand is an inspired choice to play the older Frandsen in these scenes), and later (Stephen Pelinski) when Inge dies. All three stories come to satisfying conclusions, despite the potential to do otherwise.
“Sweet Land” embodies all that’s good about independent film, including a fresh vision, a lack of concern for commercial elements, and cast and crew doing their best work out of commitment to the project not for a paycheck.
Harmo would never have backed this venture.
Selim occasionally overindulges his license to be leisurely. But a little extra time to enjoy David Tumblety’s cinematography should be considered a gift.
Treat yourself to this “Sweet (but not saccharin) Land.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 26, 2007