Humor and warm moments light up Icelandic film

    The film “Noi Albinoi” opens with shots of forbidding vistas of a cotton-white fjord, chilling in the way its angular snow-capped mountains jut out of the screen like threatening knives. But in the perennially wintry township of the inlet, people spend their mornings shoveling piles of snow from their doorways and then, afterwards, doing not much else. Given this boredom, it’s no wonder that the albino slacker-hero, Noi, would rather hole himself up in his grandmother’s cubby-hole basement than go to school. However, underneath the unwelcoming landscapes and tiresome livelihood of the Icelandic inhabitants, there’s a warm undercurrent of comedy and sensitivity that salvages “Noi” from its cold and depressing exterior.

    The story revolves around Noi and an interesting cast of characters: his quirky, cake-baking grandmother; his alcoholic, closet-karaoke-loving father; and his sweetish girlfriend, Iris, among others. He weaves close to these characters, offering them his quiet charm, his wry, incisive wit, and above all, his shared understanding for small-town frustration. Yet, when he’s alone, he’s rigging slot machines for malt liquor money, sending off shotgun blasts at ice floes, or flipping lazily through images of exotica in a child’s 3-D viewfinder. Jaded as he is, he can’t bring himself to run away.

    Hovering in close proximity with Noi’s bouts against the stifling claustrophobia of his troubling social and domestic life, the film expertly tempers cheerless events with two types of humor — topical and understated. In the first half of the film, the former kicks in when Noi’s French teacher attempts to maintain the consistency of mayonnaise, or when Noi fumbles with a vat of pig’s blood, soaking his father and grandmother crimson head-to-toe. In the second half, the film charges into a series of relentless heartbreak. But what’s great is that the comedy is still there, just more subtle and bleak, as demonstrated in an absurd sequence where Noi and a pastor compromise on how deep Noi should dig a grave.

    Also in “Noi,” serving as a kind of buffer for the desperate tragedy and even the comedy, is the pleasant attention paid to Noi and Iris’ romance, his father’s devotion to music, and the peculiar, unassuming grandmother. It is as though director Dagur Kari conjured these poignant moments directly from his own Icelandic youth.

    Although “Noi” later plunges into a profound sadness, the restrained laughter and kindness of both the film and the characters give a hopeful, rosy blush to that overcoming, frost-ridden fjord. Plus, it’s just really fun to say “Fjord!”

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