Friday, April 3, 2015

In short: Ofelas (1987)

aka Pathfinder

Unlike the moving heavy metal album cover that is its later remake (and “remake” in this case really only means “film carrying the same title supposedly based on this one”), Nils Gaup’s medieval tale about a young Sami finding his family murdered at the hands of a band of marauding Chudes and kinda sorta trying to take revenge, is a thoughtful, considerate tale that spends as much time trying to reconstruct Sami life around the year 1000 or so than it does on its plot.

That’s not a bad thing, mind you, for the film is obviously a true labour of love for Gaup and his Sami actors, bringing their culture alive with an eye for grounding it in the experiences of actual people. Gaup shows us even the stranger (to the eyes of someone not a Sami of that time) ideas and customs as part of the way actual people live(d), treating them neither with the distance of a museum exhibit nor the glorifying gestures of someone who has something to prove. This film’s look at the past does very much want to show it as alive and human, hitting more universal human truths exactly through its specificity because truths aren’t generic but specific. Quite surprisingly – I at least wouldn’t have blamed the director or his film much if it had been otherwise – Ofelas even manages to sell its more spiritual side to this hardened sceptic, showing the way the mythic and the spiritual/supernatural were a part of the these people’s way of life without either poo-pooing it with Dawkinsian (and isn’t it sad that this once great popularizing scientist is by now better known as someone whose legacy is a demonstration that we atheists can be just as shitty as the worst of the religious people?) fervour nor holding it up as the one true way everyone should follow. It’s just the way the characters here relate to their world – judgement doesn’t really come into it at all. The film makes clear it is necessary to understand the spiritual life of its characters to understand them or the time and place they live in, something you can’t really do when you’re looking down on them.

Visually, Ofelas is of course dominated by its stark yet beautiful locations that - at least from my perspective – take on the clarity of the mythic under the light of the winter sun. As it so often is with things that look very simple to achieve, I’m quite sure Gaup must have worked hard on achieving this effect, but watching the film, I found myself much more concerned with being in its every moment than admiring the directors’ art; this being a particularly fine sort of artfulness.

There’s much else to like here too – the clear and natural performances of the cast, the way the film’s plot avoids the typical structure of a revenge tale (because philosophically, revenge really isn’t its point at all), the characters’ reactions to violence which would be coded as cowardly in most other films you’ll encounter but which Ofelas accepts at what they are – normal, and not the things that decide a human being’s worth.

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