A dark costumer of sexual frustration that leads to witch trials and several deaths, “Flames of Paradise” (aka “Witchcraft”) is a realistic and beautiful film but also very inconsistent. Its box office future looks to be uneven as well, but pic’s harsh exoticism and visual craftsmanship should guarantee it slots at festivals.
At the end of the 17th century, an old man comes to a remote monastery in the Icelandic wilderness. He’s obviously dying, and, as he tells one of the priests his story, the movie flashbacks to 1643.
The man is Jon Magnusson (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason), who graduates as a priest in his youth and is told he can take over a small, remote parish if he marries the widow of the previous priest. Jon travels to the village by horse through the harsh winter, only to discover that the widow, Thorkatla (Gudrun Kristin Magnusdottir), is 30 years older than him. Though he realizes he has to marry her, he refuses to sleep with her, saying they need to be strong in mind and not succumb to temptations of the flesh.
At the same time, Jon lusts for beautiful young Thuridur (Sara Gogg Asgeirsdottir). Trying to drive out unclean thoughts, he decides to rid the parish of all supposed worshipers of Satan. Targeting Thuridur’s father (Jon Sigurbjornsson) and her brother (Jon Tryggvason), he accuses them of witchcraft, and the sheriff (Hallgrimur H. Helgason) is forced to sentence the two men to death.
Jon tells Thuridur that her relatives will be spared if she sleeps with him, but, even though she’s tempted, she finally refuses.
The men are burned alive, but Jon is still not satisfied and starts to accuse Thuridur herself of being a disciple of Satan. The story moves to its inevitable and tragic conclusion, which includes a graphic scene of castration.
The story is based on actual events, and unfortunately Gunnlaugsson has opted for a realistic interpretation in which Jon is portrayed as a weak man who gives in to temptation and kills innocent men as an act of revenge. Pic would have been much more powerful if it had emphasized the supernatural side — or at least Jon’s belief that he really is the victim of dark forces.
Production values are excellent, especially considering that most of the film was shot on location under difficult circumstances. However, a few less shots of the landscape would have helped: Lensing is undeniably impressive but the repeated shots of people riding through snowstorms become excessive and look more like ads for the Icelandic Tourist Board than necessary ingredients of the drama.
Acting is fine on every level, as always in Gunnlaugsson’s films. Special mention is due to both Gudnason as the tormented Jon and the sexy and alluring Asgeirsdottir as the object of his unclean thoughts.