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Driving Mum (Á Ferð með Mömmu)

Middle-aged loner drives his mother's corpse to her desired resting place, encountering curious characters and ghosts of the past along his journey - exquisite Icelandic drama with flavours of Bergman premieres at the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


The seventh feature film by Icelandic filmmaker Hilmar Oddsson has Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957) written all over it. Both Scandinavian films deal with old age, death, nightmares, daydreams, hitchhikers, and possess a profound sense of nostalgia. And this is no mediocre copycat. Driving Mum is beast of its own. It excels in storytelling, photography, acting and – first and foremost – lyrical freedom. This drama – which is infused with subtle comedic devices – is guaranteed to provide a feast for your eyes and for your heart. You will leave the cinema with a big smile on your face, beautiful images and sentiments spinning vertiginously in your head.

The year is 1980. Jon (Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson) is a very quiet and shy man probably in his 50s. He is very economical with words with everyone except his mother. The two live in almost complete in the dramatic fjords of Northwestern Iceland. They connect through knitting in the film’s first sequence, when the old lady tells her son that she fears for him after she passes away. During the same conversation, she demands to be taken to her native town of Eyrarbakki in the Southern Region of the island nation upon her death. She wants be properly dressed and does not wish to be cremated. Oh, and she wishes to visit Gulfoss and Geyser, two of the country’s favourite destinations. She passes away shortly after, leaving Jon to grant her every wish. So he dollies her dead body up and they both travel towards the requested destination, with the two stopovers in mind.

This is no lonely journey. Jon consistently talks to his dead mother, who continues to nag him from the backseat of the vehicle. They are also in company of the their loving pooch Brezhnev. They encounter a number of quaint and peculiar people on their way. Jon informs almost every single one of them that his mother is dead, yet they seem to dismiss that a joke. A ghost of Jon’s youth, a beautiful woman called Bergdis with whom Jon once had a relationship, shortly hops on the vehicle. This prompts him to detract from his route in order to find the current-day version of the woman. Jon will encounter several other ghosts, including a kind French hitchhiker played by French Icelandic actor Tomas Lemarquis. The film progressively takes more and more narrative freedoms. Flamboyant characters, cryptic dance acts and elliptical references make an elegant appearance, creating an emotionally and aesthetically multilayered piece of filmmaking. There is also a gentle touch of Tarkovsky’s phantasmagoric cinema (particularly Mirror, from 1975), if a little more humorous and far more lighthearted.

The dance acts are strangely eerie and charmingly quaint. A woman of around the same age sings Baccara’s I Can Boogie in a local karaoke bar, in what is one of the film’s most enrapturing scenes. It’s her birthday and she attempts to strike a conversation with Jon, but the laconic male has little little interest in her. A group of people twist and twerk on the black sand beach (presumably Reynisfjara?), in one of the movie’s most mystical moments.

There is no shortage of enigmatic signifiers. A photo camera is a character per se. Jon registers some of the key moments of his unusual road trip with an old apparatus. And he carries an album full of photographs from his youth. At first, he only shares theses images with his trusted pooch, but he eventually opens up to others. Our protagonist is determined to record his physical and also his emotional journey. Jon and his mother seem to have a sympathy for the Soviet Union: the mother and the grandmother of their dog Brezhnev also had Russian names. And they have a dislike for Germans: Jon refuses to give way to all cars full of such people. His mother spurs him on: “don’t listen to a Nazi”. Don’t try to join the dots. The connection between these devices becomes redundant as the film embraces a more freeform language.

The cinematography is superb. DOP Óttar Guðnason masterfully captures the vastness of the Icelandic landscape with his misty black and white palette. This somber mood is in line with the nation’s highly temperamental weather. Despite it being summer, rain and fog are pervasive, and characters have to don various layers. The grey mountains and the craggy dirt roads add the final touch of precarious beauty to the picture. And it isn’t just the scenery that’s impressive. The mise-en-scene is impeccable, immediately transporting you 42 years back in time.

Driving Mom is showing in the Official Competition at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. A strong contender for the Best Picture prize. Profoundly heartwarming and meditative. An instant classic.

By Victor Fraga - 19-11-2022

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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