“I am trying to express the spirit of the place,” says Iceland’s leading film director, Fridrik Thor Fridriksson. “The problem with so many Icelandic films is that if the story is weak, it gets killed by the landscape.” At the end of an exhilarating three-day visit to his country, one knows exactly what he means. The only way I know to explain the raw, sensuous, rock-ribbed hypnotic beauty of it is to imagine that Ireland and Hawaii had a one-night stand back when the world was freshly created, and that Iceland is the half-glacial, half-volcanic love child they left on the doorstep of the Arctic Circle. Such dazzlingly distracting impressions are precisely what Fridriksson leaves out of his newest film, Devil‘s Island, which opens in Los Angeles this week. Best known in this country for his Oscar-nominated Children of Nature (1991), and Cold Fever (1995), a comedy in which the spectacular scenery was arguably the love interest, his goal here is to detail the more painful contradictions that erupted in the 1950s, when the structure of 20th-century economic power was suddenly imposed on Iceland’s 11th-century social order.

“Having discovered America but shown the good taste to lose it,” as Fridriksson jokes in the film, Iceland slumbered undisturbed as a Danish protectorate from the time of the Vikings until World War II, when the United States occupied the island in response to Hitler‘s invasion of Denmark. Granted independence in 1944, then pressed into service as a military outpost of the Cold War that followed, this newly reborn society experienced a lightning combination of culture shock and high-speed growth. “We had never seen money before the Americans came,” says Fridriksson. Icelanders had previously lived by farming and fishing alone, but the influx of newfangled goods, services and pop culture transformed the city of Reykjavik from a sleepy seaport into a boomtown. “People flocked here from the countryside. So many were homeless that they were forced to live in the Quonset huts left behind by the American Army.” Icelanders called this shantytown “Devil’s Island,” whence the film‘s title.

Movies, as Fridriksson sees them, are part of a nation’s identity. Compare him to John Ford or Akira Kurosawa, and he‘ll take the compliment with a smile, but use it to hoist the Viking flag: “Ford based his work on the Icelandic sagas, and Kurosawa based his work on Ford.” Ask him what he sees as his mission, and he will recall that when he was young the government outlawed television in summer, and every Thursday throughout the year. “They wanted people to talk to each other.” Cinema is like that, he argues. “We have gone from antiquity to the 21st century in three generations. The world of one’s grandfather, even of one‘s father, no longer exists. Old people are nostalgic, young people are curious. Film can make those worlds come back to life.”

Devil’s Island shows mornings on two consecutive weekends as part of Laemmle‘s “World Cinema 2000” series. See Calendar section for review and showtimes.

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