Beyond the Boundary

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Review of 'Noi the Albino', director Dagur Kari

Set in the remote fjord regions of northern Iceland, Noi the Albino is a quirky, poignant tale that blends comedy and an impending sense of tragedy. It tells the story of Noi (Tomas Lemarquis), an intelligent 17 year old who is frustrated and bored with life in his hometown, which is cut off from the outside world by a white wall of mountains and impenetrable snow. The town, with no more than 100 residents, is far from affluent, with few opportunities for work and even fewer options for entertainment. Noi finds life dull and stifling - he lives with his eccentric grandmother, who gets Noi out of bed in the morning by firing a shotgun, and he has a rocky relationship with his drunken Elvis-loving father, who is trying, quite unsuccessfully, to reconnect with him. His one friend is a rather grouchy shop-owner, Oskar, who is constantly trying to keep Noi away from his daughter.

Though very bright, Noi cannot be bothered to attend classes or do his homework and is constantly getting into trouble, and hiding in a cellar beneath his house. He is eventually expelled from school after he sends a tape recorder instead of going himself.

Noi starts to take an interest in life when he meets Iris (Elin Hansdottir), the new girl in town, who works in a local cafe. He begins to think about life beyond the boundary of the town, and makes plans to escape. He and Iris embark on a series of adventures, leading to him meeting a fortuneteller who makes a rather foreboding pronouncement.

The setting for Noi the Albino is spectacular and Kari creatively contrasts wacky 1970s design with the bleak winter landscape. The remoteness of the location seems to symbolise the predicament and isolation of Iceland itself. At one point while Iris and Noi are wandering around a museum, they come to a map of the world with buttons that light up. They wonder why no bulb lights up for Iceland.

The gentle pace of the story gives you plenty of time to savour the characters and their understated eccentricities - you develop a deep empathy towards Noi. After the gentle humorous tone that characterises most of the film, the tragic and rather ironic conclusion comes as quite a shock.

Kari brings out the poverty of the town - local infrastructure is badly developed and there are few jobs. Noi's own background is clearly troubled and lonely - his mother is absent from the scene (though we are never told what happened to her) and his depressed alcoholic father cannot find work and often takes his frustration out on his son. Though very fond of his grandmother, Noi doesn't have a particularly close relationship with her either.

Noi the Albino is a beautiful movie, sensitively made and well acted. It is worth watching just to get a glimpse of life in Iceland, a part of the world that we rarely get to see. It is unsurprising that it has won numerous awards including the Nordic Film Prize and the Film Fox Award.

If I have one criticism it is that Noi the Albino sends out a very bleak message: it is about a boy who tries to reach beyond isolation and poverty and fails, through no fault of his own but due to circumstances beyond his control. The relationship between the fortune-teller's prediction and the ending seems to indicate Kari's belief that no matter what we do, fate is in control.