Flabbergasting images and a delightfully dry sense of humor make “Of Horses and Men” a debut worthy of celebration. Stage and shorts helmer Benedikt Erlingsson reveals an astonishingly inventive eye and a sensitivity to the confluence of spirit between man and animal that’s impossible to capture in words, balancing desire and jealousy with the cycles of life and repping a boldly distinctive vision set in a quirky horse-riding community in the stunning Icelandic countryside. Iceland’s Oscar submission will be proudly trotted out at fests and deserves visionary distribs willing to back an outsider.
A special prize should be created just for the horse wranglers, who have achieved a level of control here, as well as a communion between animal and actor, that is nothing short of remarkable. Whether capturing the animals’ excitable wariness or their calm benevolence, the pic shows these steeds in all their strength and grace, their wildness achieving a symbiosis with the landscape as well as the community. But this is no mere animal movie; nor is it a Nordic “Black Beauty,” and those looking for adorable family entertainment should look elsewhere.
The whole hamlet is united in their admiration for the immaculately turned-out Kolbeinn (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson) and the way he rides his magnificent mare through the downs, perfectly erect as he puts the beast through the “flying pace” gait unique to Iceland. Solveig (Charlotte Boving) in particular has her eye on the stately gentleman, which is why she’s beyond mortified when one of her randy stallions breaks loose and mounts Kolbeinn’s horse. With Kolbeinn still in the saddle. It’s one of those very rare, truly surprising images, guaranteed to send audiences into shocked titters coupled with amazement that Erlingsson was able to, erm, mount such a spectacle. However, for the rider and the eyewitnesses, perfection has been broken.
Another extraordinary image follows when Vernhardur (Steinn Armann Magnusson) rides into the sea in pursuit of a Russian trawler whom he suspects may have vodka onboard. Communication between the two isn’t perfect, and he’s given pure alcohol instead; his funeral is a subdued affair, though Solveig can’t help but notice the way Vernhardur’s widow looks at Kolbeinn when he pays his respects.
Grimur (Kjartan Ragnarsson) can’t stand anyone blocking ancient through-paths, so he rides around with a wire cutter, snipping the barbed-wire fences that Egill (Helgi Bjoernsson) has so carefully erected. Recoiling wire hits Grimur in the face and blinds him; his two horses lead him to Swedish horsewoman Johanna (Sigridur Maria Egilsdottir), who’s in the process of taming her mare.
Spanish tourist Juan (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada) is energized by the countryside and the horses he sees, so joins a German group exploring the area. But he lags behind, and when snow falls and the sun goes down, he’s in a pickle.
Each storyline is announced via a closeup of a horse, with a character reflected in the animal’s eyes. None of this is really from the horse’s p.o.v., though Erlingsson has managed to make humans and their steeds feel vital to one another, conflating animalistic passions equally present in both species, even if the people have theirs under slightly better control. The land itself is another prominent part of the equation, not something to be mastered but loved and respected.
Not lost in the visual magnificence is a delightfully idiosyncratic sense of humor (this is Iceland, after all), often established via cool visual keys, editing and meaningful glances exchanged by the characters. Thesps are all outstanding, remarkably at ease with the beasts they’re working with; “handling” seems like the wrong word, since the power dynamic between actor and horse appears to be fairly balanced.
Lenser Bergsteinn Bjoergulfsson (“King’s Road”) deserves special mention not only for the way he presents nature’s panorama, but how he inserts the camera in the midst of agitated horses, reflecting their nervous energy without resorting to unnecessary shakiness. David Thor Jonsson’s music is a delight, playing with traditional, Irish, East European and church themes for an added level of amusement.