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Tromso Festival opens the European Fest season


The Tromso film festival, located in extreme Northern Norway, precisely six degrees above the Arctic Circle, is not only the Northernmost accredited film festival in the world, but also the first international film festival on the annual Europen calendar, preceding Gotteburg and Rotterdam which come later in the month. This will be the fifteenth installment of this unusual midwinter film fest under the Northern Lights and promises to be the biggest one ever.

Tromso runs from January 18 until January 23. The odd thing is that the opening ceremony and opening film were held on the second night of the festival (Wednesday) and the closer will be on Saturday night, although the screenings continue for another full day. The big name guest this year is England's Mike Leigh whose latest film, "Vera Drake" has gathered much attention and a probable Oscar Nomination for lead actress Imelda Staunton. Martha Otte, fest topper, and her staff have put together a program of 67 feature films carefully culled from other European festivals of 2004 as well as a robust slate of new films from Scandinavia, especially Norway and Sweden.

The basic thrust of this festival is to introduce primarily non-mainstream films to Norwegian distributors in the hopes that some of these titles will be picked up for commercial distribution. Hence, on the professional side there is a large contingent of reps from every Norwegian film distribution company comprising a kind of far-northern niche film market. Aside from the big multi-nationals one small company here is ARTHAUS Films which, as the name clearly states, specializes in smaller art house type fare. ARTHAUS has a tidy fifteen titles in the feature program including "Turtles Can Fly", the Kurdish-Iranian film which took the best film prize at San Sebastian in September, as well as the Argentine crowd-please "Bombon The Dog", critics prize, also at San Sebastian. Other Arthaus offerings; a new print of the classic Hollywood musical "Singing in the Rain", two Asian animation features, "The Cat Returns" from Japan and "Wonderful Days" from Korea, and "Against The Wall", the Turkish-German surprise Golden Bear winner at Berlin last year.

The festival opener was the World Premiere of "An Enemy of the People", a very strong update of the famous Henrik Ibsen play of 1882 to contemporary Norway. Director Erik Skjoldbjerg, (born 1964) being a native of Tromso is a "home town boy", and his film received a lengthy standing ovation from the hometown crowd. Although this is an oft-performed Norwegian stage classic, surprisingly it has never been filmed in Norway before, and, in fact, the only previous screen version was an English language adaptation starring and produced by Steve McQueen (!) in 1978, a scant two years before the actor’s untimely death at age fifty.

The project was clearly intended by Mr. McQueen to prove to the world that he was more than just an action star – i.e., a real actor. For better or for worse, the money masters behind the film (in an ironically Ibsenesque turn) decided that the public would never accept a Steve McQueen without a shotgun in hand or not behind the wheel of a hot car. Consequently, the film itself also died a quick death, was never released commercially and went straight to video oblivion.
Whatever the qualities of the McQueen “Enemy of the People” (which, incidentally, co-starred the excellent Swedish actress and Bergman regular, Bibi Anderson) the film is now basically a forgotten Hollywood footnote. However, the new Norwegian edition (distributed by Columbia TriStar Nordisk), is a tense, handsomely mounted drama, unusually well-acted and directed, with obvious resonances of business interests having no qualms about poisoning people or the environment -- that could travel well outside of Scandinavia if properly handled. And it doesn’t matter if you know nothing about the original Ibsen play because the issues ( the truth being squelched to save jobs, even if the town will literally die out because of the polluted water they are producing) are even more contemporary today than they were 120 tears ago in Ibsen’s time.

Jorgen Langhelle, as the peoples’ enemy, Thomas Stockman --determined to tell the truth even if it ruins his life and destroys his family -- is particularly impressive in the original McQueen role. Sven Nordin (known in Norway for comic roles on television) is also finely evil as the insufferable brother behind the cover up, and Trine Wiggen, a stage actress appearing in her first major screen role, is quite unforgettable (and strikingly beautiful) as the anti-hero’s wife. The film has received only fair-to-middling reviews by norsk critics (“four stars out of six”) but will probably do better with foreign audiences reading the sub-titles and unaware of certain dialectal deficiencies which bothered some people here. (But, who was bothered by Clark Gable minus southern Accent?) In any case, I found this film to be a worthy festival opener and a gripping film experience. Another selling point – the incredible scenery along the west Norwegian Fjords – often seen in Norwegian films, but never before more dramatically lensed – a fantastically beautiful backdrop to the fantastically sordid story unraveling in the foreground.
by Alex DeLeon


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