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Don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of Ali Selim’s “Sweet Land”. Although an independent film made outside the Hollywood system, it is not a cheap movie shot on a shoestring budget. There are production values aplenty, and the film’s construction, from top to bottom, is top notch. The actors are pros, the visual artistry apparent, and the story — well, let’s just say it’s not something your average mainstream movie critic will crow about. And why should they? This isn’t a depressing film strung together by a series of gritty Art House Cinema cliché. But the same things that make “Sweet Land” fly under the radar is also the same thing that will, if you give it a chance, break and mend your heart at the same time.
From the very first minute, writer/director Ali Selim (adapting the short story “A Gravestone Made of Wheat” by Will Weaver) hits you in the gut with powerful emotion. An elderly woman named Inge has passed as her grandson Lars (Stephen Pelinski) sits at her side; Inge, we learn, was a German immigrant who came to America in the 1920s as the mail order bride of a Norwegian immigrant farmer named Olaf. Inge’s death is the catalyst for our story, and the film flashes back to the 1960s, picking up with Lars (played as a young man by Patrick Heusinger) during Olaf’s passing, and his bond with his grandmother as she soldiers on alone.
The real heart of our story goes further back in time, to 1920 Minnesota, as young Inge (played as a young woman by Elizabeth Reaser) arrives in America with a suitcase, an English-language book, and a phonograph. She has no family back home, and the promise of a new start has brought her from another world. Arriving to pick Inge up from the train station is Olaf (Tim Guinee) and Frandsen (Alan Cumming), Olaf’s happy-go-lucky neighbor and best friend. Immediately, things take a turn for the sour, as the town Minister (John Heard) refuses to marry Olaf and Inge, fearful that her status as a German may stir trouble within the community in the aftermath of World War I.
Things continue to go poorly for the would-be spouses, forcing Inge to stay with Frandsen and his wife Brownie (Alex Kingston) at their home, which seems to be already filled with the couple’s massive brood. After a moment of spontaneous intimacy involving a late-night bath, Olaf and Inge decide to move in together, he taking the barn and she the house as they are still not yet married. Alas, controversy nevertheless stirs, as the Minister finds the couple’s living arrangements to be untenable, forcing to a near exile of Ingle and Olaf from the community. But as they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and their shared punishment only brings the two strangers closer, eventually forming an everlasting bond.
Because films like “Sweet Land” is made to be heartfelt, to fully realize its potential the viewer must invest emotion with the characters. Selim easily accomplishes this with the first ten minutes of his film. Before we have even met Inge and Olaf, we have already become involved in their life and times, and as a result, their unfolding romance, played out against the sprawling American Midwest, is allowed to unfold naturally, unhurried by time or modern audience expectations. The land itself becomes a character, each framing of the expansive acres done with great attention by Selim and his cinematographer. To his great credit, Selim realizes the inherent charm in his tale, and never rushes the narrative for a single second.
As Inge, Elizabeth Reaser is at once beautiful, smart, and spirited. She would have to be all those things to take the gamble in crossing the ocean on her own to marry a man whose face she can’t make out in the only photograph she has of him. Reaser, most known for her role in the TNT original series “Saved”, is our perspective for much of the story. From her arrival in America (waiting at the train station for Olaf to pick her up long after everyone has left, including a fellow foreign mail bride whose future is in doubt) to her dismay at the illogical fear mongering for all things German, “Sweet Land” is as effective as it is because of Reaser’s performance. She embodies Inge so wholly that her image stays with us long after we’ve left the past and returned to the ’60s, where Lois Smith takes over the role as an elderly Inge.
Also good is Tim Guinee as Inge’s hesitant spouse. As we see much of the story from Inge’s perspective, Guinee’s Olaf remains aloof to us (as he is to her), but we eventually come to know of him as a good man. Hard working, stubborn in his way (but what men aren’t?), and willing to sacrifice blood and sweat to carve out a decent life for himself and his. Guinee underplays the role perfectly, and his low-key approach to Olaf, who is unsophisticated and completely devoid of flash, makes us eagerly root for him. We like this guy. We really, really do.
The rest of the cast does well, if not great. Alan Cumming is funny and livens the mood, but the moments spent with him inevitably come across like filler material, especially since the film abruptly ignores much of what transpires to him and his family when it comes to time periods beyond the 1920s. We see that Frandsen is still around and is his usual jovial self, but we learn nothing about what happened to him between then and now. What became of his family? His farm? Alex Kingston, as Frandsen’s wife, suffers the same fate. Granted, this is Inge and Olaf’s story, but it would have been nice to know a little bit of the saga of Frandsen and Brownie, especially after all the time we’ve spent with them.
“Sweet Land” is a movie befitting its title. It seeks to tell a traditional tale within a very traditional structure, and those seeking cinematic adventure will find little here. Ali Selim has not made a movie to dazzle, and although its visuals are breathtaking (more so because they are so simple and unrefined, and yet so captivating), “Sweet Land” is a movie for the heart. The core of the film is genuine, and as such there is no Movie Illness to jerk a few cheap tears from the audience. “Sweet Land” packs a strong emotional punch, and deserves to be enjoyed by as many people as possible.
Ali Selim (director) / Will Weaver (short story A Gravestone Made of Wheat), Ali Selim (screenplay)
CAST: Elizabeth Reaser …. Inge
Tim Guinee …. Olaf
Alan Cumming …. Frandsen
John Heard …. Minister Sorrensen
Alex Kingston …. Brownie
Ned Beatty …. Harmo
Lois Smith …. Old Inge
Patrick Heusinger …. Young Lars
Stephen Pelinski …. Older Lars