There are numerous magical moments in Rúnar Rúnarsson’s moving mosaic “Echo,” though perhaps none more powerful than that instant when we as viewers allow ourselves to jettison expectations of narration and let the director’s composite vision bury itself snugly deep within. It might take a bit of time to reach that point — there are 56 scenes, theoretically unconnected, and for a while we wait for some character to return, some bridge to be revealed. Instead, the film is a patchwork of stories set during the Christmas holidays, and as Rúnarsson says, society itself is the protagonist. Once a sense of rhythm is grasped, things fall into place, and audiences will exit the cinema debating their favorite scenes, recalling a wealth of graceful, humane interactions.
Marketing “Echo” outside the fest circuit will be a tricky task, but worth the effort if handled well. That means ensuring viewers understand the film is akin to reading a series of holiday-time short stories, each one working on the emotions to varying degrees, where the trajectory doesn’t really hit home until the final majestic shot of a great ship’s prow being tossed about in rough, steely seas. On paper, perhaps that image sounds too easy, too ripe for metaphorical interpretation, but what of it? It works, just as well as the opening shot through the window of a car wash, where each layered fabric brush whirls about like a fluttering dervish, accompanied by Kjartan Sveinsson’s atmospheric tonal music.
Each scene is composed of a single stationary shot, apparently planned without a sense of their final order, which came together during the editing. The scenes and emotions vary, as do locales, ranging from city to rural, indoor and outdoor. In one, two funeral directors remove the lid from a child’s coffin and arrange the fabric lining around the dead boy’s placid face; the scene following is of an African-American talking to his family back home from a sun bed, saying how much he misses them, especially over the holidays. Christmas is approaching, with all the emotions, high and low, that come with it, like a drug addict moved by the kindness of two nurses in a mobile unit, or the divorced woman who breaks down on the phone when her ex says he’s keeping the kids.
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It takes a bit of time to adjust to all these vignettes and realize that their accumulation is what builds the sense of time and place. Some feel as self-contained as a humorous sketch, such as an angry woman misjudging a man frustrated by traffic, while others are intriguing peaks into more profound situations, like an adolescent girl being showed up at the piano by the daughter of her father’s new girlfriend. Perhaps the most moving is an emergency services phone operator, speaking with an eight-year-old boy whose parents are violently fighting — we don’t hear the boy, just the calming voice of the operator, and it’s heartbreaking.
Rúnarsson’s previous two features, “Volcano” and “Sparrows,” with their more traditional storytelling trajectories, also captured a sense of place and a society, troubled, ruminating and on edge, but with “Echo,” he’s brought together a panoply of types and situations that create a grander picture, broad yet like a collective chamber piece of a nation striking notes of melancholy and loneliness together with more hopeful chords of commonality and compassion, where small kindnesses act as grace notes to the opus.
The crew is formed of Rúnarsson regulars who rise to the formal challenges, resulting in a film that never sacrifices visual (or aural) pleasures. Sophia Olsson’s camerawork is rigorous yet rich, while editor Jacob Secher Schulsinger miraculously finds a way to make it all breathe together, even at one point having fun by cutting from a children’s Nativity pageant to a women’s bodybuilder pageant. The large cast (uncredited in the pressbook) is mostly formed of amateurs, their naturalism part and parcel with the film’s humanity.