Sunday, May 19, 2024

“WHEN THE LIGHT BREAKS”

THE STORY – Una grapples with grief while harboring a secret, unable to fully express her emotions, as she navigates challenging events swirling around her.

THE CAST – Elín Hall, Katla Njálsdóttir & Mikael Kaaber

THE TEAM – Rúnar Rúnarsson (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 82 Minutes


Before producing an oeuvre of some of the new millennium’s most sonically arresting film scores, Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson first entered the music scene with a unique symphonic voice. He was an artist indebted to multiple artistic disciplines. As evident in his debut album entitled “Englabörn,” Jóhannsson introduced the world to his creative genius through the power of theater. Translated in English as “Heaven,” the album was first introduced as an accompanying score for a stage production with the same name. Directly paying tribute to the great Latin poet Catullus, the first track in “Englabörn” is a melancholic symphony that combines atmospheric strings with a digitized oral performance of “Odi et Amo.” The song shares the same title as the sampled poem. The violins’ shrill and the artificial voice’s eerie repetition haunts the sonic scape. It’s no wonder that Icelandic director Rúnar Rúnarsson took direct artistic liaison in incorporating Jóhannsson’s ballad into his latest feature, “Ljósbrot” (or “When The Light Breaks”). “Odi et Amo” carries a new contemporary context within “When the Light Breaks” — an unconventionally compassionate coming-of-age saga that expertly avoids insensitive theatrics.

Set within the close-knit community of Reykjavík’s own Listaháskóli Íslands University for the Arts, Rúnarsson subtly embodies the young & beautiful mindset of his protagonist Una (Elín Hall). A student completing a dead-end bachelor’s degree in performance art, we see Una’s emotional vulnerability flourish throughout the real-time chronology of cataclysmic tragedy. Resembling Linda Manz’s slick leather-jacket swagger and blue-jeaned angst in Dennis Hopper’s “Out of the Blue” (1980), Hall’s star-making turn maturely embodies her dissociated character. Rúnarsson coyly plays with the motif of a literal disconnect as a byproduct of his character’s unknown present. In a literal personification, Una’s cell phone runs out of battery throughout the film’s inciting act. Hall’s minimalist approach aptly lures the viewer into an unanchored flurry of change. Steady breaths, pants, and sighs draw us closer to her shrouded wails.

In light of Una’s awakening, Rúnarsson simultaneously dissects the art of performance in times of crisis. The unorthodox thematic explorations take hold of Una’s broken interiority  — trapped in order to conceal her humanity beyond the veil of fabricated control. During one of the film’s candid conversations, Una confesses that she dreams of traveling to the Faroe Islands, the land where Ullmann & Andersson once performed their “Persona” rituals by the shorelines. Comparisons and even homages to Bergman’s avant-garde masterpiece are warranted as Una confronts a woman who shares the same blue eyes — drowned by the color of the ocean and the vast Icelandic sky. They are drawn in by their differences, jealousy, and aspirations for a better future.

Whilst the film slowly creeps into melodramatic territory in its dissection of survivor’s guilt, repressed secrets and unearthed desires; Rúnarsson halts any semblance of forced musicality & petty dialogue. His operatic compositions are compact, deliberate, and patient. Rúnarsson lingers in the melancholy of communal grieving cycles, where the film extrapolates nothing more than the rawness of the human experience. Una’s perspective is further punctuated with the implementation of a wide lens, the world is collapsing upon itself in fleeting moments of self-actualization.

Without a single hint of irony, there is joy in the background of the overwhelming tragedy. A nation is in mourning while the local teens adorn outlandish costumes resembling bananas, Teletubbies, and the one & only Perry the Platypus. The costumed juveniles roam the grief-stricken Icelandic streets, kept at a formidable distance from the spectator. Akin to his penultimate feature, “Echo” (2019), “When the Light Breaks” shares similar images and themes of interconnectivity, compassion, and community. Both films toy with the plentiful juxtaposition and humorous anecdotes shared during remembrance gatherings. “When the Light Breaks” never once relishes in miserablist tropes as a result of its deliberate form. Instead, through the power of durational cinema, Rúnarsson’s lost souls reconcile through stillness and silence. With the exception of one aimless and questionably unnecessary scene revolving around Una’s father, the film compacts plentiful ideas and recurring visual motifs with incendiary splendor.

We return back to Jóhannsson’s sorrowful song. As the integral theme to Una’s strength, the atmospheric chants sing their hymns of tortured desires. The song symbolizes a voice from the dead, composed by a dead man who guides us through the lingering power of his sonic legacy. In a film that surrounds itself thematically with the confrontation of the dead, “Odi et Amo” further amplifies the unknown beauty of life itself. “I hate, and I love. Why do I do this, perhaps you ask. I know not, but I feel it happening, and I am tortured.” sings the monotone voice. The beginning is the end of Rúnarsson’s unconventional tale. A storm rests in the distance. But the light of the falling sun shines bright. The beginning is the end — a farewell to love, a farewell to youth, a farewell to the long day that inevitably closes.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Strong melancholic direction provides the film's compassionate core. As a narrative all about overcoming traumatic adversity during a time of national crisis, Rúnarsson's empathetic eye unveils detailed subtext in the most unlikely of places.

THE BAD - Occasionally deviates from its thematic crux with an unnecessary scene involving the protagonist's paternal figure.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 8/10

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Strong melancholic direction provides the film's compassionate core. As a narrative all about overcoming traumatic adversity during a time of national crisis, Rúnarsson's empathetic eye unveils detailed subtext in the most unlikely of places.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Occasionally deviates from its thematic crux with an unnecessary scene involving the protagonist's paternal figure.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>8/10<br><br>"WHEN THE LIGHT BREAKS"