Saturday, February 7, 2009

When The Raven Flies (1984)

During the reign of Harald I in Norway, a Viking raid on the coast of Ireland leads to the death of the parents of young Gest and the abduction of his sister. Gest himself keeps his life only thanks to a (as it will turn out to be) rather ill-advised moment of compassion of one of the raiders.

Years later, a conflict with Harald has driven the Viking clans who were responsible for the deed into exile in Iceland. Their leaders, Erik (Flosi Olafsson) and Thor (Helgi Skulason) are blood brothers and are trying to eke out a living on the inhospitable island.

One day, the merchant ship that connects them with what one hardly wants to call civilization, brings not only the usual load of goods and slaves with it, but also a young man (Jakob Por Einarsson) who soon turns out to be the grown-up Gest, out to find his sister (who is now Thord's wife and mother of his son) and out for revenge.

The revenge part of his mission works out nicely, thanks to his adept use of throwing knives and the total lack of empathy Gest shows towards his enemies (or, for that matter, the man who once saved his life). Erik, Thord and their men are still too many to take them on all at once, but cunning use of the distrust and barely controlled hatred the two Viking clans harbor for each other and some rather mean games with Thord's religious convictions will see their numbers whittled down soon enough.


Most sources on the Internet seem content with calling this a "Viking film" and comparing When the Raven Flies with the sagas of its cultural context, which is stating the obvious, but failing to detect the other (and let's be honest, just as obvious) reference point of the film: the Spaghetti Western. I'd even go so far and call it a "Viking Western", a film that uses the aesthetics of the Spaghetti Western to tell a story about medieval Iceland in the same way the Spaghetti Western tells a story about the Old West. When the Raven Flies seems just as disinterested in historical accuracy as its Italian counterparts are - it's all about defining a mood, showing a lot of unwashed people who don't like to talk much, and wallowing in lots of mud (some of it of the metaphorical kind).

Director Rafn Gunnlaugsson's film doesn't have to hide from the better representatives of its sister genre - technically, it might be a little raw, but this rawness only strengthens its grim mood. Gunnlaugsson has a way of making Iceland's landscape say the things his characters are just too taciturn to say.

It is also very much one of those revenge movies which are as much about the terror lying at the core of revenge as about the revenge itself. Gest has good reasons for the things he does, but the unflinching gaze of the film is clearly conscious of the fact that its anti-hero's deeds are just as bad as what has been done to his family. The film's ending is less about revenge fulfilled as about revenge perpetuated.

Additionally, there is a very Italian sounding soundtrack that gives the film a certain kind of rhythmic backbone I always like in my movies.

I'd recommend When the Raven Flies for it's "Spaghetti Western in Iceland" conceit alone, but it's a film that uses this potential gimmick as a starting point for something much more harrowing and quietly intense that is worth experiencing.


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