TIFF 2014: Baldvin Zophoníasson's Icelandic Drama 'Life in a Fishbowl'
by Alex Billington
September 12, 2014
"What is light without dark?" Every once in a while I come across something so unique, so refreshing, so exciting to watch that as soon as the lights come up I immediately want to start raving and telling others about it. This is one of those films, and I hope I can bring some additional attention to it. Thanks to a tip on Twitter from filmmaker @DarrenAronofsky, I caught an Icelandic film called Life in a Fishbowl, from director Baldvin Zophoníasson, an ensemble feature premiering at the Toronto Film Festival. Amidst all the darkness, death, stress, and horribleness in this world, here is a story that finally has some optimism to it.
As explained by TIFF, Life in a Fishbowl (which just opened in theaters in Iceland this August) is described as a "multiple-narrative drama" that focuses on three different people living in the cold, darkness of Iceland: "a struggling single mother, a former athlete trying to scale the corporate ladder, and a once-acclaimed author turned full-time drunk — whose lives intersect in surprising ways." This is one of those films that will constantly throw you off; right when you think you know what's about to happen next, it takes a sharp left turn, then twists again in ways that will make you incredibly tense at first, but relieved by the end. That's the power of this: it makes you feel every emotion, without losing hope. The less you know going in, the better.
Thanks to seductive, dark cinematography by Jóhann Máni Jóhannsson and a very moody but marvelous score, the film pulls viewers right in. Even without knowing much about the characters, or even the setting or location they're in, it's not hard to fall into this and feel attracted by its cinematic pull. The bigger story involving all of these people is very sensual, addressing poignant topics such as honesty, integrity, domestic abuse, the power of sex, how our perceptions can be off, and the way we cope with all of this while also struggling to make the best for ourselves, and our families. But instead hammering audiences over the head with how prevalent, and unchecked, all of this is (as many films tend to do nowadays) it provides some light in the darkness. And with all that darkness, all the shit to wade through, it's refreshing to find some light.
Over the last few weeks (and years) there have been a number of films like The Wolf of Wall Street, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Ramin Bahrani's 99 Homes (at Telluride/TIFF), and Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler (at Telluride/TIFF) that play up the good side of this corruption/debauchery ever prevalent in our society. They tend to remind us that, despite desires for a better world, it's not as easy to change things as we think, and sometimes we have to cave in and accept the bullshit if we want to make it through alive (or sane, or with a nice car). However, Life in a Fishbowl finally says screw that (not literally) and gives us a bit of hope, some optimism, to hold on to as it attempts to navigate the troubles of a stressed out, embittered modern society.
The film's characters and how fleshed out they are make this compelling. The one every will fall in love with, despite his flaws, is Móri played by Þorsteinn Bachmann. An accomplished poet/writer, he's also a drunk (or "wino" as they call him in the film) but listening to him talk is like listening to poetry. Everything he says is lyrical, and the most breathtaking moments of the film are when he really speaks from his heart. The rest of the Icelandic cast including Hera Hilmar as Eik, Thor Kristjansson, Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson and Laufey Elíasdóttir, are fantastic and all of them add something special to the film. My only issues are with a few of the story beats that occasionally try to push the story along a bit too easily. Almost all of it is totally realistic except for a few scenes, though I could look past those when it comes to the full experience.
Despite Aronofsky's recommendation, I was still surprised to find a film as moving and unique as this one. Baldvin Zophoníasson is a director to watch, and I expect we'll be seeing quite a bit from him down the line. He proves that he has remarkable storytelling talent, not only in blending the characters together, but giving taking us on the kind of emotional journey that resonates deep down in our bones. The kind that reminds us and reaffirms that although there's plenty of destructive, selfish people out there, there's also some hope. It's the little moments, even just a smile, or small gestures, that can make all the difference. Seek this out.
Alex's TIFF 2014 Rating: 9 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing