Caught in the paralyzing embrace of the far north, the characters in “Passing Darkness” writhe and remember in a difficult but fascinating brew of obsession, murder, sex, money, family guilt and postwar politics. This third feature by name Norwegian helmer Knut Erik Jensen (“Stella Polaris,” “Burnt by Frost”) is a highly experimental work, once again eulogizing the Arctic landscape and its tough-skinned people in a film of great tension but deliberately limited emotional pay-off. Pic looks poised to win critical admiration via festival exposure, with limited theatrical play and prestige tube airings to follow.
Story is a challenge to follow as it leaps from one scene to another at the speed of the imagination, dissolving narrative even more than in Jensen’s previous efforts. Reversing the usual procedure, Jensen uses a tantalizing story as a backdrop against which to weave a strikingly modernist, visual film style. Based on a novel by co-scripter Alf R. Jacobsen, the fish-laden tale flips between the Nazi occupation of Norway during WWII and the present day.
Young Oslo lawyer Josef Omgang (Stig Henrik Hoff) returns to the extreme north, which he left as a child after his mother’s disappearance. His imperious father (Snorre Tindberg), who owns Omgang Fishing Industries, has fallen on hard times. He’s in debt to his German partner Krebs (Dietrich Hollinderbaumer), who came to town during the war as a Nazi officer overseeing forced labor in the fish factory, and his life is threatened by a Russian crime lord who wants to take over the lucrative fish export market. Called on to give dad a hand, Josef broods and relives past hurts.
Throughout the film, viewers are challenged to put the puzzle together as characters and story pieces are randomly tossed out. Josef spends his time with the bewitching Doris (Gorild Mauseth), a factory worker who knows everything about his family and seems very close to his half-brother Edvin (Nicholas Hope), the unstable son of his father’s dignified housekeeper (Gunnel Lindblom).
Everyone harbors a different view about Josef’s missing mother, Tatjana (Lana Paouli), a Russian prisoner who was loved by Krebs as well as his father.
Packing enough melodrama for a northern “Written on the Wind,” pic oddly undercuts its most dramatic moments, refusing to give viewers the emotional clout they expect. A would-be action scene showing Josef and Edvin rescuing Doris from a Russian trawler, where a fate worse than Emily Watson’s in “Breaking the Waves” awaits her, fizzles in too-quick cutting. People also seem to be trying to kill Josef, but this is given far less weight than the web of memories and dreams in which he is caught like some passive, Hamlet-like observer.
Hoff makes a striking hero of unfathomed depth, whose sophisticated perf and screen presence should be a calling card for international productions. Mauseth’s Doris, looking perpetually cold and vulnerable in flimsy low-cut dresses, is a mysterious beauty Hoff seduces with a raw-fish meal during a lighthouse tryst.
Another of pic’s memorable love scenes is a nude coupling between Tatjana and lover in a fish-oil hut, whose very smell seems to come reeking off the screen. Swedish actress Lindblom and Tindberg round out an excellent cast.
From the opening shot of a ship’s prow cutting through the icy waters of the North Sea, Svein Krovel’s cinematography communicates a visceral feeling for the inhospitable landscape of the far north and how it toughens the character of souls who live there. Filmed in a kind of luminous Arctic darkness, in desaturated colors that rob even scenes in southern Italy of their sunshine, lensing is one of the film’s most emotive components.