Film Review: ‘Virgin Mountain’

Icelandic director Dagur Kari's Tribeca prizewinner traces the slow, careful emergence of a gentle giant of a man who falls in love.

Image Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Fusi, the hero of Icelandic director Dagur Kari’s fourth feature, is, to quote the cliche, a mountain of a man. Indeed, he is the virgin mountain of the title: Fat, 43 and still living with his mother, he incarnates the sad-sack sweet guy for which Ernest Borgnine’s Marty could serve as the prototype. Working in small, skillfully nuanced, always surprising increments, Kari, enabled by Gunnar Jonsson’s extraordinary performance, charts a moving, totally believable flowering of untapped potential as Fusi falls in love. Winner of the top prize and an acting award at Tribeca, “Virgin Mountain” could shine in arthouse play.

Fusi (Gunnar Jonsson) has created a safe, unchanging, extremely limited world for himself. Working as a baggage handler at the airport, he returns home to re-create the battle of El Alamein on his work table with the help of his only friend, Rolf (Arnar Jonsson). Nothing disturbs the peace of Fusi’s routine: He eats the same pad thai at the same restaurant every Friday, whiel the purchase of an action figure or a motorized toy tank barely produces a ripple in the sameness of his days. His mother (Margret Helga Johannsdottir) seems invested in keeping him at home to stave off loneliness and help around the house.

Fusi’s rare forays outside his comfort zone tend to backfire. A co-worker’s invitation to a paintball excursion ends in a humiliating encounter with a prostitute, and Fusi’s friendship with a neighbor’s little girl (Franziska Una Dagsdottir), one who is unfortunately starved for attention, raises unfounded specters of perversion.

Fusi absorbs rejection, bullying and ridicule as his norm, while genuine acceptance produces shock, uncertainty and a blind wait for the other shoe to drop. He seems fated for an absurd life of Kaurismakian pathos, or the sudden receipt of some kind of miraculous makeover. What he receives instead is a birthday gift of line-dancing lessons delivered with salacious commentary and a cowboy hat by his mother’s live-in lover (Sigurjon Kjartansson). Against all odds, even while fervently trying to avoid his lessons, Fusi manages to meet a vivacious blonde and begins to do for her what he could never accomplish or even wish for himself.

The chances of said blonde finding Fusi attractive in return seem slim to none. But, as it turns out, Sjofn (Ilmur Kristjansdottir) is no poster child of social integration; her cheery outlook and open acceptance masks a darker, crippling, more depressive side. Indeed Sjofn’s neediness, damaged soul and true appreciation of Fusi’s gentle goodness balance the romantic equation and grant their friendship a safety net and healing power that may not promise happily-ever-after closure, but sure opens a lot of doors.

The lead couple’s acting styles inventively complement each other, even visually: Jonsson’s Fusi, used to hiding his emotions, often requires extreme closeups in order to read the subtle “tells” by which he expresses his feelings, while Kristjansdottir’s Sjofn, customarily voicing every thought that passes through her mind, fairly radiates intense joy or pain.

To a certain extent, it’s difficult to write about a humanistic offering like “Virgin Mountain” without sounding goopy or piously uplifting; delicacy of touch can be hard to describe if the approach is even marginally upbeat. But there are no false notes here, and the most resonant moments proceed with a brisk matter-of-factness that is satisfying in itself.