A few weeks back I had preview passes to see Sweet Land but was unable to see it due to other obligations. I had seen the movie compared to some of Terrence Malick's earlier films and noticed that it was shot in 35mm which made me vow to catch it in the theater on the big screen while I still could.
The movie starts off with blurry images of workers and trains across the plains with the quotation written on the screen, "Let us hope, that we are all preceeded by a love story." The first ten minutes of the film are powerful as you see a son bedside watching his mother die, spliced with flashbacks, and a beautiful photo of her in her youth. We also see a real estate businessperson attempting to convince the son to sell his mothers land where she can put thousands of houses, and offers him $2.2 million. What follows is a story told almost entirely in flashback of his mothers life and the love story of her and her husband.
Inge (Elizabeth Reaser) is a German immigrant who comes to america almost as a mail order bride. Olaf's (Tim Guinee) parents (who are Norweigan?) have arranged for the marraige. When we first see her on the train she is holding an old grammaphone, which was shown at Inge's bedside as she died earlier in the film. She looks beautiful, stubborn, and entirely unsure of what she is getting into. When she finally greets the community she is about to join, she speaks very little english which provides a problem. "Only English in the Church," says the minister at the ceremony. Inge compounds this by speaking her native German. This is World War II America, this is the church going heartland, these are common farmers, but most of all these are Americans who know they are at war with Germany and are uncomfortable with a german in their mist. "She has beautiful eyes, but they are devious. That's what gives her away."
Inge and Olaf spend the entirety of the film coming into and out of the graces of the community around them and Inge attempts to fit in. The romance is a slow build between Inge and Olaf. You immediately can tell that Inge has taken more of a liking to Olaf than his friend Franzen. But Olaf doesn't want to run astray of the community and the church, in this town it seems the Church is the community. So when Inge makes a bold move to be with Olaf, and the preacher (the almost always magnificent Ned Beatty) sees them waltzing, not dancing, on the porch he decides he's seen enough that they need to be made an example of. Still, Olaf and Inge remain true to eachother and make attempts to remain true to the community.
Filming in 35mm did at times give this film the feel of one of Malick's mini epics. A few scenes especially brought Days of Heaven to mind. Though I do doubt that Malick would have spent as much time in small houses and churches as director Ari Selim did. that is not to take anything away from Selim. This is a beautifully shot and constructed film, and obviously one close to Selim's heart. Selim is the son of first generation Egyptian imigrants who came here only in 1953. And with World War II ominously looming over this film and it's German protaginist, comparisons can easily be drawn to our never ending war on terror or even war on culture. "She's in America now, you think she'd take time to learn the language," one character muttered. Still, Inge speaks as much in broken German, unsubtitled at that, as she does in English throughout the film.
Maybe thats one reason that the film just worked. Selim relied as much on imagery, facial expressions, scenery and at times silence as he did on spoken word. It didn't matter at times that we could not understand what Inge was saying and feeling. Through her performance, and the performance of the whole cast we felt what she was feeling. The script and this film could have easily been forgotten, or just tossed aside into the made for tv movie pile. But the performances and direction rose above that.
Sweetland is playing at Landmark Theaters in Castleton for at least 1 more week.