October 20th, 2006
If eye-popping period cinematography and the lovely build of romance is your thing, "Sweet Land" is the best film out there right now.
Inge (Elizabeth Reaser) is a German immigrant sent to Becker Country, Minnesota for an arranged marriage to man she’s only known through letters. The man turns out to be Olaf (Tim Guinee), a shy Norwegian farmer who maintains a solitary work life. When the local church finds difficulty with Inge’s paperwork and birthplace and cannot marry them, Inge and Olaf decide to live together anyway, causing uproar in the community that threatens to ostracize them and ruin their chances at love and prosperity.
“Sweet Land” is a stunning, tenderly made picture that evokes a lush sensation of time and place. This is Minnesota farmland in the WWI era, resting on expansive open spaces where the breeze can play all day long and the sun reaches every nook and cranny.
Truthfully, however, “Sweet Land” won’t win any awards when it comes to narrative innovation. This is an unhurried type of “Romeo & Juliet” story, set against the backdrop of small town religious repression and unmerciful industrial and economic growth. It contains all the genre basics: a meet cute, forbidden love, and slowly melting devotion. Actor John Heard portrays the Lutheran minister keeping Inge and Olaf apart, and his confusion with their living arrangement sets up a mild, but effective antagonistic relationship that helps develop the passions even further. Even spying a simple dance between these two unmarried people tightens his collar.
It helps that writer/director Ali Selim recognizes the film’s classical structure, using it to create a meticulous portrait of the era and the landscapes to give his film its gracious personality. The Minnesota immigrant experience is not a subject routinely covered by filmmakers, providing Selim plenty of space to breathe in the hardship and work detail of the land, where bankruptcy was a growing concern for individuals unprepared for farming invention. Selim illustrates to the viewer the backbreaking labor, the homegrown payoff of the work, and the solitude of life on the prairie.
The director employs cinematographer David Tumblety to capture the sun-coated, heavenly vistas. “Sweet Land” is literally painted with light; each frame filled with a Midwestern sense of interior shadow and glow, while also permitting the expansive countryside to speak for itself in progressively more luminous ways that would make Terrence Malick green with envy. This is one of finest shot films of the year.
With the ice slowly melting between Inge and Olaf, “Sweet Land” turns into an unexpectedly sensuous affair as Inge grows more confident in her new home and with her husband to be. Selim concentrates on the looks and silence between these two, toying with the language barrier to create a more soulful way to express attraction. Actors Guinee and Reaser plays the parts superbly, expressing romantic yearning, Midwestern bluntness, and social frustration with the most minimal of dialog and movement. They bless “Sweet Land” with their hearts and enthusiasm, gracing the picture with a dramatic beauty that almost, almost, equals the scenery.
My rating: A-