A Review by Tom Condon,
(St. Martin Province)
A woman who buries her husband on their Minnesota farm in 1968
relives her life as an immigrant who arrived from Norway in 1920
as a postal bride.
Sweet Land is a stunning film.
Set in rural Minnesota, the film opens in the not-too-distant
past, with the death of Olaf, an aged farmer of Norwegian descent.
We meet Inge, Olaf’s wife, along with family members and
family friend Frandsen, at the wake in their own farm house. Inge
finds a box of old photographs, including one of herself taken
in 1920, newly arrived in this country. The movie then takes us
back to Inge’s arrival as a very young mail order bride,
many decades ago.
We see Inge nervously waiting for Olaf at the train station with
two suitcases and a large Victrola phonograph. Olaf and Frandsen
arrive and immediately take Inge to the Lutheran church for the
wedding. However, Inge informs them that she is German, not Norwegian.
Olaf, Frandsen, and the pastor are speechless. The memory of World
War I was still fresh and Anti-German sentiment was strong. The
pastor refuses to perform the marriage ceremony, saying the Inge
does not have the correct “papers.” He suggests that
they go to the county judge; maybe he can help them. Inge, in
her very broken English, protests that “Luther was German!”
However, the pastor remains firm.
The judge also refuses to marry Inge and Olaf, wondering
if she may be a spy. “I thought we won the war,” Olaf
mutters to himself.
and Frandsen wonder what they will do about this awkward situation.
It was simply out of the question for Olaf to take Inge into his
house without being legally married. Frandsen offers to take her
in to his house, along with his wife and nine children. Frandsen’s
family is welcoming, but there is little room for Inge. In addition,
the bank is threatening to foreclose on Frandsen’s farm
unless back mortgage payments are made. One night, Inge sneaks
out and returns to Olaf’s house. Still determined to “do
the right thing,” the couple decide that Inge will sleep
in the bedroom and Olaf in the barn until they are able to marry.
Despite the many obstacles to be negotiated, Inge and Olaf grow
in their respect and affection for each other until they fall
deeply in love.
Working from the short story, “A Gravestone Made of Wheat”
by Will Weaver, writer-director Ali Selim, lovingly brings the
story of Inge and Olaf to life. Selim treats the characters and
their dilemmas with deep respect, as well as a sense of humor.
There is a deep sense of culture of rural Minnesota culture: hard
working, faithful, reserved Norwegian Lutherans, respecting God,
the land, family, and community. After two hours, I really felt
like I knew Olaf, Inge, and their community.
Visually, Sweet Land is stunning. Every detail richly evokes
the period. The cinematography captures the wide expanse of the
rural landscape and the vastness of the Midwestern sky. Much of
the drama is expressed in the visual images. In a lovely sequence,
Inge and Olaf walk side-by-side through the field. First their
hands brush against each other, then, naturally, gently, silently,
Olaf’s hand holds Inge’s. The many night scenes are
beautiful, including one in which Inge sees the Northern Lights.
Selim also features such delightful and interesting scenes as
Olaf taking a photographof the newly-arrived Inge (the same photo
Inge finds at Olaf’s wake), and an early motion picture
of Eskimos kissing, projected in Frandsen’s barn.
Sweet Land is a very spiritual film. The small Lutheran Church
is a central character in the film. Olaf, Inge, and the pastor
have an uneasy relationship. They all want to do what is right,
but find themselves in a difficult situation. The pastor wrestles
with his duty regarding Olaf and Inge. Should he marry them, or
abide by his obligations, and continue to insist upon “the
papers?” Does he recognize their growing love in this awkward
situation, or brand them “immoral” for living together?
The pastor weaves back and forth, as he ponders his pastoral response
to the unique situation before him.
A crisis arises late in the film that becomes a defining moment
for Olaf, as well as the community. (Since I do not want to spoil
the enjoyment of the movie, I will not go into detail.) Olaf responds
in a way that puts him at great risk. The scene captures the moral
character of Olaf: a spontaneous action done purely out of loving
concern for another. It is an astonishing moment, full of grace.
The courageous act of Olaf changes the hearts of others in the
community. It’s a moment of congregational redemption. So
often in films we witness the effect of violence on individuals,
families, communities. It’s nice for a change to have the
opportunity to witness the effects of a courageous, loving act
Land is wonderfully acted. Elizabeth Reaser and Tim Guinee are
Inge are excellent as Inge and Olaf. The supporting cast includes
many fine actors who you will certainly recognize, even if they
are not exactly household names: Alan Cumming, Alex Kingston,
John Heard, Ned Beatty and Lois Smith.
Not the least of Sweet Land’s accomplishments is the way
in which this period film can shed light on contemporary issues.
The most obvious is the attitude toward immigration. Love eventually
wins out in the film. Let’s pray that love leads to justice
for the immigrant in our own time as well.
Sweet Land is scheduled for release in selected cities in October.
I hope it gets the wide release it deserves. I loved this movie
and highly recommend it to everyone.
Tom Condon, OP
Known As: The Wedding Photo
Sweet Land is scheduled for release in selected
cities in October.