To be frank, I've never quite understood horses or horse people. I still have plenty of questions — perhaps more questions — after watching Of Horses and Men, a gorgeously strange film from Iceland that chronicles the relationships among horses and humans in one small town through a series of vignettes. But the movie does such a superb job of bringing us close to horses — their shaggy textures; the expressive flicks of their manes and tails; their enormous, liquid eyes; their powerful gaits — that I will never again wonder why people form such deep attachments to them.
Of Horses and Men is one of those films so odd you will only ever see it on the big screen at a festival. The Vermont International Film Festival will screen this first feature from writer-director Benedikt Erlingsson on Friday, October 31, at 6:30 p.m. at Burlington's Main Street Landing Film House. The film will be introduced by John Killacky, executive director of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts and proud owner of a Shetland pony named Raindrop.
According to a text card that appears at the end of Of Horses and Men — assuring audiences that no horses were harmed in its making — the cast and crew own and adore horses, too. Yet this is no formulaic flick that pays tribute to the nobility of the animal kingdom, like Steven Spielberg's beautiful but sentimental War Horse. The horses in Of Horses and Men aren't "innocent" of human wrongdoing, just different from us. And, in some startling ways, similar.
That's clear from the film's first segment, starring a reserved country gentleman named Kolbeinn (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) and his winsome white mare. As he trains the animal, neighbors observe him through binoculars across their stark, almost lunar valley, but the reason for their fascination isn't clear until Kolbeinn canters over to visit an attractive single mom (Charlotte Bøving) who owns a brown stallion. Body language makes it evident the humans are experiencing mutual attraction. The horses, likewise. Things proceed to go awry, resulting in one of the most bizarre and unsettling shots showcasing an equine in the history of cinema. Be aware: This is not a family film.
Sensitive souls should also know that not all the interlocking stories told in Of Horses and Men have happy endings for horses or men. Indeed, both come to grief with almost comic regularity; the drone of the town preacher's standard funeral oration becomes a dark joke. (Otherwise, dialogue is sparse throughout.) Rustic anecdotes take abrupt turns for the tragic here, as when an old horseman decides to snip the barbed-wire fence his neighbor has used to bar a tradition-honored thoroughfare.
Although the film takes place in the present day, it portrays the harsh physicality and social intricacy of country life in ways that recall 19th-century fiction. Outsiders — a Swedish equestrienne, a Spanish-speaking backpacker — find bluff kindness in this unnamed town, but everyone must learn to keep the pace.
Moments of triumph and grace balance the film's darker aspects, and David Thor Jonsson's score makes it sing with energy. Think of this as a western of the far north — one with no bad guys, a few stunts and showdowns, and horses who share top billing with their riders. In one early shot, the camera tracks Kolbeinn and his mare as they cross the landscape at a furious clip — but the rider remains out of frame, so our eyes fix on the laboring horse. It's a slight adjustment of the cinematic perspective that could make a world of difference in our own.