Iceland’s 2013 Academy Award submission for best foreign language film, OF HORSES AND MEN, is an occasionally amusing, often bewildering look at a remote and rugged community where man and the majestic beast share a seemingly orderly coexistence. Through a series of nonchalantly played mishaps, director shows how easily the balance can be disrupted, while making some sharp observations about the human construct of social order. At times it is peculiar, while at others, it is downright callous toward the beasts with whom we share the earth.
There is not so much a narrative as a series of vignettes that underscore human folly. The first involves a man riding his handsomely saddled horse on a circuit around the village, ostentatiously prideful of his status. Others of less economic stature look on enviously from afar. A farmer with a stable of horses welcomes the prestigious individual and puts on a showy display of welcoming and the two engage in a carefully mannered courtship ritual. Meanwhile, a tethered and corralled mare and stallion struggle against their confines to pursue their own natural desires. And, in one of the film’s more audacious set pieces, an untamed creature throws off all of that human affect described above in a simple act of instinct.
Throughout, horses are subject to the will of humans. Sometimes as a resource - the horses are employed in the community’s singular tourist attraction. And other times as the victims of human folly: a hair-raising scene finds an alcoholic riding a horse into the sea toward a cargo ship stationed nearby in a desperate act of feeding his addiction.
The horses are shown reverentially, eyes always wide open, absorbing the strange order of their human interlopers with what looks like a distant observer’s hint of wisdom and baring their abuses unflinchingly. Keeping in mind the message that no animals were harmed in the making of the film, one will puzzle over how some of the more excruciating looking scenes were carried out.
But the film is not always loaded with darkness. Sometimes the film simply expresses the clumsy desperation with which we pursue happiness and our basic desires against the complex order we have created for ourselves. There is an assured levity to it.
And whether it’s a mood of light or darkness, director Benedikt Erlingsson has a gift for creating wondrous still images that capture the natural barren landscape and its majestic inhabitants, which are also ripe with meaning. The last of which may be the most telling: an overhead view of humans and horses moving frantically in the enclosed space of a coral, with humans trying hopelessly to establish control over chaos.
While there is no interspecies romance, just about any other kind of conceivable interaction imaginable takes place, so bring your imagination and mind wide open should you have a chance to glimpse upon this unusual film.