Saturday 30 August 2014

LIFE IN A FISHBOWL (aka Vonarstræti) - TIFF 2014 (TIFF Discovery) - Review By Greg Klymkiw

In search of redemption:
TIFF 2014 (Discovery)
Life in a Fishbowl (aka Vonarstræti) (2014)
Dir. Baldvin Zophoníasson
Script: Birgir Steinarsson & Zophoníasson
Starring: Hera Hilmar, Thor Kristjansson, Þorsteinn Bachmann

Review By Greg Klymkiw

As a Canadian who writes about movies, has made more than a few movies and loves movies, I'm ashamed to the depths of my bowels at having to admit that the highest grossing Canadian film over the last year was the utterly loathsome flop The Mortal Instrument: City of Bones.

By virtue of our nation's tax credit system and international co-production agreements and the blatant, sorrowful waste of our talent and locations, this sickeningly moronic teen fantasy-adventure based on a dreadful franchise of illiterate-ture, aimed at the lowest common denominator of those who purport to read, is no more Canadian, in terms of its content (if you want to call it that, I prefer to describe it as faecal matter), than a hairy, barefoot, offensively unwashed, stove-top-hat-adorned, shotgun-toting, Ozark-dwelling hillbilly.

Oh Canada, how dare anyone stand on guard for thee?

As these thoughts of national shame permeate the gelatinous goo of my brain matter, I seek respite from the horror and instead, as a longtime cottager in Gimli, Manitoba, I look to the tiny country of which I feel honorarily bound by virtue of so many years celebrating Islendingadagurinn and secretly whacking off to photographs of those grand old ladies crowned each year as "New Iceland's" Fjallkona.

Yes, Iceland, I'm looking at you, baby and I rejoice that your audiences recently supported a superb new indigenous film and turned it into a humungous domestic box office hit, higher and more powerful than the mighty Mount Askja.

That the film is a dark, disturbing, multi-layered, hauntingly textured and deeply moving multi-character drama that focuses on the legacy of three major banking institutions collapsing during the Icelandic Financial Crises of 2008, is what ultimately makes this picture's existence and success even more of a victory. North American exhibitors, broadcasters and distributors of motion picture product would never even green-light, much less allow an indigenous film with this subject matter to be seen by those who would embrace it. Thankfully, one of Canada's most visionary sales companies, Raven Banner, has done us proud by acquiring this motion picture for distribution.

Life in a Fishbowl was a very difficult and challenging work for me to get through - not because it lacked anything aesthetically, but because it's so damn rich and emotionally complex. That said, like all truly great drama, the surface layers work with very simple, basic standards to allow for its textures of theme, character and narrative complexity to bubble and roil like molten lava and when necessary, explode with the force of Icelandic volcanoes. The screenplay by director Baldvin Zophoníasson and Birgir Steinarsson practically sings with a musical quality - highs, lows, moments of contemplation and some sequences that both soar and jangle. When I eventually looked up the film's credits, something my readers and colleagues know I only do after I see a movie, I was delighted to learn that this was the first shot at screenwriting from the singer-songwriter of the legendary Icelandic rock band Maus. It made perfect sense to me. Let's not forget that one of the best contemporary screenwriters in the world, Nick Cave, has a similar pedigree to this film's co-writer Birgir Steinarsson.

Life in a Fishbowl compellingly and powerfully focuses on three characters who live out their lives separately after the horrendous Icelandic financial crisis, but all of whom intersect in a variety of interesting and gloriously meshed ways.

Eik (Hera Hilmar) is a drop-dead-gorgeous single mother who works in a pre-school. Ravaged with debt, she puts on a brave face for her child and others in her life. She has a strained relationship with her parents. They seem well-off enough to assist her, but even if they could, one doubts Eik would accept such help in light of an extremely horrendous and harrowing series of events from her childhood. Eik's nights are occasionally filled with part-time work to supplement her meagre income, but it's the kind of work she approaches by shutting herself down emotionally with as much inner strength as she can muster.

Hilmar's performance here is astonishing. She evokes a wide-range of emotions and the camera clearly loves her. She's got all the potential to be snatched up by the Hollywood machine as her star potential ascends very high, indeed. That said. her work here is so challenging and luminous, one questions whether she'd ever get the kind of roles in mainstream work that she's more than capable of playing. She's already been used in such typically cliched work as David S. Goyer's slick, faux-sophisticated, but empty TV series Da Vinci's Demons. Ugh! Please give this lady work worthy of her talent. Then again, one supposes she can always count on Icelandic, European or independent filmmakers to fill the need for truly great roles.

Móri (Þorsteinn Bachmann) is an acclaimed and much-beloved Icelandic literary figure, but he also lives alone in a house that seems untouched, as if it were a museum piece reflecting both happier times and tragedy. He's also an alcoholic. Many great writers have been and he, like they, uses booze to numb the pain which wracks his soul. He's written a new novel, but it's his first in a long time and while waiting for word from his publisher, he whiles away his time performing poetry in a local "arts" bar, downing gallons of fiery rotgut with other drunks in a less-than-upscale dive and during his benders, he's prone to both accidents and being beaten, robbed and left on the pavement by his "fair-weather", equally-soused cronies.

When Móri meets Eik and her daughter, he develops a loving friendship with both and even manages to hit the wagon. Unfortunately, all the elements that make his life have new, added meaning, are also the very things which threaten to knock him off the wagon.

Bachmann, like Hilmar, offers a deeply absorbing and complex performance. His moments of kindness, humour and even paternal caring betray his sensitivity, but he, like Eik, looks to shutting down emotionally. Móri, however, seeks booze to turn the inner faucet of his soul to the "off" position.

(As a side note, there were a few moments in Bachmann's performance wherein I was happily reminded of a legendary night of drunken laughs, tears, hugs and general male bonding in Toronto's Bistro 990, the now-defunct TIFF watering hole, where I shall never forget hoisting more-than-a-few with the great German documentary filmmaker and ZDF executive Alexander Bohr and the brilliant Icelandic auteur Friðrik Þór Friðriksson. But, I digress.)

Sölvi (Thor Kristjansson) is a former pro-athlete who has been sidelined by a debilitating injury and now works as an executive in a financial corporation. Here, he seems destined for success, but his immediate superior is the kind of immoral scumbag who'd think nothing of perpetrating the kind of criminal actions that brought Iceland to its knees. Sölvi is placed in charge of a sleazy real-estate deal which will buy up a swath of properties to erect a new mega-complex.

Kristjansson deftly handles the complexities of this role wherein his character's sense of morality is challenged by his need to provide for his beautiful wife and child. After all, in tough times, how can anyone in this position place integrity ahead of business? This is also a business of temptations beyond getting-ahead, it is a world where part of getting the deal done involves bonding with male colleagues in the exploitation of women-for-hire.

There is a sequence of debauchery on a Florida yacht which clearly rivals the antics of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese's thrilling biopic of financial scumbag Jordan Belfort. I use this harrowing sequence of whoring and boozing as one which best exemplifies Zophoníasson's superb direction and proves that the excellent work he displayed in his phenomenal debut Jitters was no fluke.

Zophoníasson's touch here contrasts Scorsese's in a very interesting way. Where the Maestro from Little Italy injected immorality with a dazzling virtuosity that heightened the depravity by exploiting it, Zophoníasson captures the exploitation with a kind of documentarian's eye - it's not fun at all, at least not for the audience. In fact, it's gross and horrific what these grown men are up to on this yacht of banal depravity. Brilliantly though, Zophoníasson and Steinarsson's screenplay allows for a series of subtle directorial movements into territory that borders on another sort of dazzling style - one that is tender and romantic, but that eventually dovetails into something else altogether. There's a denouement to this sequence which occurs a few scenes later that is as maddening as it is heartbreaking.

One film "critic" recently complained that Life in a Fishbowl is hampered by "plot weaknesses and a tendency to the obvious", but what these purported weaknesses might be, are not (as per usual in mainstream criticism), detailed in any way, nor is the review forthcoming in explaining what is meant by a "tendency to the obvious". Yes, metaphorically one cannot help but see these characters like those fish in a bowl who have clearly been trapped into swimming endlessly in every available which-way with no hope of ever adding new boundaries or horizons, but it's these simple visual symbols that allow for films to be truly great and transcend them the way Zophoníasson's film clearly does.

The simple surface elements of the narrative also give way to layers of emotional and narrative complexity. The aforementioned whoring-on-the-boat sequence is just one of many moments wherein the filmmakers transcend the tools that only the very best will adhere to in order to create work that has lasting value and yes, maybe, just maybe, hope.

Make no mistake, Life in a Fishbowl is blessed with qualities that are not ephemeral. The movie is universal. It's what makes movies worth seeing.


Life in a Fishbowl is playing during the 2014 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival in the Discovery series. It's been programmed by one of the world's leading proponents of Nordic, Scandic and Canadian Cinema, Steve Gravestock. For further information on dates, times and tickets, visit TIFF's website HERE. Raven Banner is the film's distributor.