Film Notes: Rúnar Rúnarsson’s Sparrows (2015)

Rúnar Rúnarsson’s Sparrows is a nuanced coming of age drama that studies human emotions as they encounter the diverse unexpected events of life. It is an enriching and haunting experience both for the protagonist and the viewer.

4 out of 4 stars

A Hostile Environment

The first time we see Ari, he is doing something that he loves the most. He has an amazing voice that touches the soul. As he sings with his friends by his side, we can feel the passion. But his life is going to change soon. Ari’s mother has to move to Africa to work with her new partner. Since she feels that where she is going will be dangerous for Ari, she decides to leave him at his father’s place.

Consequently, Ari has to leave behind his friends, his bicycle, and his home, and travel far north. The difference between Reykjavik and this small village is crystal clear. In the city, his house was a part of a continuous line of similar houses. Here, the house where he is about to stay stands on a desolate field, and alone. Ari’s father assigns him to a job without asking him once.

The people in this fishing village characterize a justified sense of resignation to life. This Aki Kaurismaki-esque attitude emerges not from anger towards society. Contrastively, these people have everything they need. And that is the biggest problem in their lives. The enclosing mountains prevent them from having higher dreams. They have work and easy pleasure. Ari’s father is one such self-obsessed and content man. As Ari’s grandmother puts it, ‘his macho nonsense is his handicap”.

“a 6-year old girl”

The majestic barren mountains surrounding the village symbolize the rigid masculine ego that dominates this place. Here, hunting animals is fun, while Ari feels free to sing only when he is alone. The men here are tough and they love to show that. To them, Ari’s strength is that of a 6-year old girl. One day, Ari comes across Lara. The way they look at each other renders it clear that they have a romantic history. But Lara has a boyfriend who beats up Ari on the slightest excuse possible. Ari’s only comfort is his grandmother who understands and embodies the power of the soul in a macho world. But this comfort doesn’t last long as death takes her away.

It is at this moment that the film becomes truly special as it avoids familiar tracks to explore something deeper. Ari showcases girlish shades especially when he sings. He mischievously peeps at his friend when they bath naked. But this film is not about homosexuality. Its job is to quietly watch human behavior as unexpected events keep altering it. Rúnarsson’s script studies Ari’s father as deep loss gives him new realizations. Similarly, a strange encounter gives Ari a deeper understanding of sex.

A Ship in turbulent water

Rúnar Rúnarsson does not follow the traditional three-act structure. This is what renders the work to be such a nuanced coming of age drama. But Rúnarsson’s visual language conforms to traditions in evoking the mental state of his characters. Ari is often found in visually confined spaces that reflect his inability to escape. However, Rúnarsson enriches such familiar visual expressions by introducing humorous contrasts, for instance, contrasting this with a ship sailing away.

Such visual tropes along with the performances contribute to the viewer’s engagement in the first half-hour of the film. Atli Oskar Fjalarsson has arresting eyes that perfectly suit Ari’s sensitivity. Ingvar Sigurdsson naturally embodies the multi-shaded character of Ari’s father Gunnar.

But it is the last ten minutes that render the film to be a work of high humanistic significance. In absolute silence, Ari cries in acute pain as he watches something grotesque. Then he realizes that speaking about the event will destroy the life of someone who has no clue what has happened. It is through responsibility that we attain empathy. Ari’s parents are flawed. But compared to the society around, they are Santa Claus. By the end, Ari realizes just that.

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