Friday, January 7, 2011

Fridrik Thór Fridriksson's MAMMA GÓGÓ, Iceland's Oscar entry, gets an L.A. airing

Am I imagining this, or are we critics and reviewers having more opportunity to view, not only the movies that finally make their way to nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, but even those that are initially submitted to represent various foreign countries in the yearly Oscar race? Seems so to me, at least. Relevant to this (and I am making an assumption here), I would guess that a country like Iceland, with its relatively small population, does not have nearly as many movies to choose from -- as does, say, Italy, France or Germany -- when selecting which film should represent it at Oscar time. Hence (another assumption), the pick by Iceland's powers-that-be of Fridrik Thór Fridriksson's MAMMA GÓGÓ as the country's official Oscar entry.

This not uninteresting film has some very moving moments along the way, as well as some funny ones (often black and bleak), dealing as it does with a down-on-his-luck movie director who has just made a film called Children of Nature (about Iceland's elderly) that is bombing at the Icelandic box-office, and for which the only hope would seem to be a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination. Meanwhile, the director's own mother is beginning to suffer from dementia of a particularly virulent and dangerous sort. Fridriksson, shown at left, is the man who also directed last year's fine documentary, A Mother's Courage: Talking Back to Autism, so the fellow is clearly knee-deep is the understanding of human beings facing difficult handicaps in both early- and late-life situations.

What is so odd about the filmmaker's new Mamma Gógó, however, is that the aforementioned Children of Nature, is an actual movie, made in 1991, that was indeed nominated for (but didn't win) said Oscar. In fact, in Mamma Gógó, we're at the premiere of Children of Nature in one of the film's first scenes. Following this, we're with the poor beleaguered director (played quite well by Hilmir Snær Guðnason, above, Iceland's go-to guy for roles that require a sexy young -- now actually approaching middle-age -- male, and who has scored big in films such as 101 Reykjavík and The Sea). Further, the movie appears to be taking place today (certainly within a year or two past), since events such as the Icelandic economic crisis, a possible new drug that might  help Alzheimer patients, and a very large, wide-screen TV all make appearances in the film. Yet Children of Nature is now 20 years old. What is happening with the time frame here? Is the writer/director simply goofing on us? Or not-so-subtly telling us that this is just "a movie," so anything goes?

Even more interesting is the use of popular Icelandic actress Kristbjörg Kjeld, above, in the title role. Ms Kjeld is terrific: smart and funny early on (watch her get out of a traffic violation!) and sad, dense and confused as the film (and her character's sickness) progresses. Fridriksson not only stars Kjeld as she appears today but also uses footage (below) from her debut film 79 af stöðinni (from 1962), in which she also played a character named Gógó, in what appears to be flashbacks within Mamma Gógó to indicate the young love affair with her now deceased husband. For Icelandic audiences this is probably gourmet catnip;  for foreign viewers, however, it works mostly as sentimental overlay.

Sentimentality, particularly at the finale, is what finally reduces the film to less than the sum of its often very good parts. The dialog is sometimes a little too pedestrian and the pacing standard stuff, but the 84-minute running time helps make the experience easier. There are some very moving scenes along the way (the son diapering his mother) and others that are nasty and powerful (mom's sudden outbursts against her daughters and, particularly, her daughter-in-law). But because, as this point in time, we've seen an awful lot of movies about elderly dementia, there is finally not a lot that's terribly new here. Other than the filmmaker's interestingly bizarre mash-up of time periods with older movies and performances.

Los Angeles film people will have the opportunity to see Mamma Gógó this Sunday afternoon, Jan. 9, at 12:30pm, at the Writers’ Guild Theater, 135 South Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. I don't think, so far, that any U.S. distributor has stepped up to the plate. But that could change, depending on which films the Academy chooses for its Best Foreign Language Film shortlist, then nominees and -- finally -- winner.

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