Int’l Critics Line: Iceland’s Oscar Entry ‘Lamb’

The Icelandic mountains loom, the mists swirl between the peaks to where horses suddenly skitter in the snow. The only sound is stertorous breathing as the camera, clearly asserting something’s point of view, approaches the herd. Away they run.

Then a barn emerges from the white fog. The sheep within become restless in their turn. Still that breathing, along with an ominous electronic drone. Animators talk about the uncanny valley; this corner of Iceland is the real thing. Until the radio on a stool in the barn is heard, playing In Dulce Jubilo. A Christmas carol. Perhaps everything is right with the world after all.

The brilliant opening sequence of Valdimar Johannsson’s Lamb — visually magnificent, resolutely unhurried, eerie but at the same time as homey as Little House On The Prairie — sets the scene for everything that is to come.

Lamb is Iceland’s official entry for the Best International Feature Film category at the 2022 Academy Awards. It debuted in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section, winning the Prize of Originality. Via A24, it hit the Top 10 domestically for two weekends running.

In the film, Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Gudnason) plow their hay fields and deliver lambs in quiet marital accord. You have to be paying attention to catch a reference to the loss of a child that they have faced, as they have everything else, shoulder to shoulder.

Still, you sense their sadness. And you aren’t at all surprised that when there is the chance to become parents again, even if the infant Providence sends is not exactly what one might expect, they only have to look at one another to know what they are going to do. Maria has a little lamb. We see her face melt with love as she looks at the woolly face, peeking out of its blanket. If she and Ingvar are sharing a delusion, it hardly matters. There is nobody to judge them here: just sheep, wild horses, their watchful dog and the wind. And something else, of course, but they don’t know that.

The season waxes and wanes. Ingvar’s dissolute brother Petur (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson) visits and is gradually reconciled to the altered state of the household, until he tries his luck with Maria once too often and she pushes him into the cellar and turns the key. Do not underestimate the strength of a woman fueled by maternity. She also faces down an ovine rival that stands outside the window, bleating piteously for the lamb she has lost. Maria won’t brook any rivals. Pretty soon, that ewe is just a stack of chops.

Lamb has been tagged as part of the current wave of folk horror, but it doesn’t have horror’s bluntness — the dark side, when it comes, is slow and stately rather than startling — and it doesn’t refer to any Icelandic myth. What it does have is a sense of the mystery of all things, that any rock or blade of grass on the farm Ingvar has inherited from goodness knows how many generations of his family — when he chivvies his brother into helping him clear the garage, we learn they grew up here — might harbor something unfathomable.

We get only whiffs of this numinous world. No big scares, visitations or explanations, just subtle allusions that are never made explicit. Is this a pagan retelling of the Nativity? Is Maria a modern Mary, the couple’s barn standing in for the original stable? If you want. Nothing here is fixed. Johannsson studied film with Bela Tarr, and it is easy to sense the influence of the minimalist master even if it looks nothing like one of his own films. The metaphorical power is in the thing itself; it doesn’t need to mean something else.

Moments of tension and absurd Scandi humor slip in smoothly, the editing calibrated so perfectly that everything seems inevitable. At one point, Ingvar sits in his tractor and cries with exhaustion. He never gives way to that weakness again; only we saw it. When Petur arrives unannounced, fury scuds across Rapace’s face like a cloud passing overhead, but all she says to Ingvar is “how long is he staying?”

An extraordinary soundscape by Ingvar Lunderg and Björn Viktorsson rumbles and keens beneath this sparse dialogue. The story builds like a storm. When that storm breaks in a killer final act, it doesn’t come as a shock. It simply feels inexorable, like the turning of the earth.

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