Ali Selim’s Sweet Land opens with a series of blurred, disconnected, and seemingly random images, followed shortly thereafter by the placid death of an old woman in bed. Even before we learn how these various pieces fit together, the film has conveyed a sense of the fragility of experiences, memories, and—transitively—life itself, a theme that will coil inward as the narrative begins to take shape. As recalled by her elder self, Inge Ottenberg (Elizabeth Reaser) arrives in 1920s Minnesota as a mail-order bride. Only upon their first meeting, though, does her husband-to-be Olaf (Tim Guinee) realize she’s German, an almost automatic cause for expulsion from post-WWI America. Forbidden to marry and unable to obtain the proper immigration papers to secure her citizenship, Inge is outcast by paranoid townsfolk, who are stealthily disapproving of her sinful “German-ness.” Praise for the film’s historical recreation and technical authenticity would be but lip service; more aesthetically affecting is the use of architecture and landscape (with a light emphasis on doorways and windows) to frame and reflect the characters’ internally brewing emotions. Helped in no small part by Reaser’s emotionally direct performance, Sweet Land proves to be wonderfully sincere in its evocation of character, but that the film tries to be so many things at once (a romance, a family saga, a fish-out-of-water tale of redemption) ultimately stems the cumulative dramatic effect. A second-act plot twist is unsatisfying and contrived, and curses go to the overwrought soundtrack and the malnourished examination of the tense cultural climate of the time (the persecution of Nazi’s and socialists hardly being examined beyond their immediate relevancy to the plot). On the other hand, the film’s multilayered narrative (which employs a flashback within a flashback) and complementary use of organic transitions is nothing if not breathtaking, employing simple bodily gestures and unpretentious cuts to suggest a spiritual presence resonating across the generations. Its overly polished script notwithstanding, Sweet Land is exquisitely in tune with the rhythms and connections of lives both present and past and, expectedly, those yet to come.
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