When I first got the idea about the character, I had not decided to make a film. I was pondering other art forms, like a comic book or something like that. The character established himself as a graphic image in my mind.
—Dagur Kári, “The Making of Nói albinói”
People, don’t you understand?
The child needs a helping hand,
Or he’ll grow to be an angry young man some day.
—Elvis Presley, “In the Ghetto”
“Take an actor like Sean Penn, who is one of my favorite actors,” says Dagur Kári. “He actually hates acting. He regularly makes statements he is going to quit. But he can’t quit. He can’t help himself. He has to act. There is an interesting tension to be explored there.”
Speaking for the making-of documentary included on Palm Pictures’ DVD of Nói albinói (which also includes deleted scenes), Kári here reveals one reason his stark film is simultaneously off-putting and utterly compelling. Driven by tensions in plot as well as execution, it walks a remarkably delicate line, between poetry and roughness, convention and harrowing difference. As he explains it, such conflicts are as intentional as they are effective: “The terms ‘professionalism’ and being called a ‘professional’ scare me. I feel there is a danger of losing a degree of innocence… The worst that can happen to a filmmaker is to become a ‘professional.’” And so the filmmaker endeavors to maintain a kind of remove from the industry and sense of “innocence” regarding its possibilities. His cast is made up of performers who “do more than just act,” that is, other jobs (architect, carpenter, fisherman, graphic artist). “The same goes for me,” she says. “I could never be a full-blast moviemaker. It’s important for me to back out of that sometimes and do music, or do something completely different.”
The desolate comedy made by this group of not-strictly professionals is extraordinary, in large part because, as Kári says, it asks viewers to “use their own imaginations” (for instance, he notes, “An avalanche is far too terrible to show on the screen,” and so it appears by innuendo, with the screen cutting to black and huge rumbles on the soundtrack). Nói albinói focuses on the difficult-to-represent experience of a high school student in small town Iceland, 17-year-old Nói (Tómas Lemarquis). Living with his sweet, taciturn grandmother (Anna Fridriksdóttir) and Elvis-loving, alcoholic cab driver father (Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson) (who warns him, “Always use a condom,” even as Nói is trying to report on his loneliness), the boy is alienated, wearing a light blue Members Only jacket, sleeping through his classes, and feeling increasingly frustrated by his lack of options.
Though Nói is plainly bright (the school shrink sees that he’s exceptionally so, when the boy solves a Rubik’s cube in the few minutes they take for a conversation), he also resists playing by rules—mainly because he’s seen how useless conformity has been for his father. When he decides to stop going to classes altogether (and sends a tape recorder with his friend instead), the authorities are at a loss. “You seem to take pride in destroying every solution we offer to you,” accuses his principal, just before he expels Nói.
Spending his afternoons shooting ice off the mountain that overlooks Bolungarvik (population 957), looking at palm trees in his 3-D Viewmaster or watching television, sometimes hanging out at the book store (where he plays board games with the grumpy owner in order to win glances at porn magazines), Nói seeks any sort of distraction. As Kári points out in the making of documentary, the film feels suffused with cold blues and pale, sick greens (“We tried to stay away from primary colors”) and flattened soundtrack (“The sound,” he says, “enhances the feeling of isolation,” as most is recorded in mono, designed to distance the audience, and insist on the source “within the limits of the screen”).
Such effects grant access to Nói’s despairing internal state, though he hardly speaks. (The film’s low-key affect and fondness for simple-seeming compositions and brief scenes recall the work of Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki). When Nói meets Iris (Elín Hansdóttir), a girl who’s arrived in town to escape the crazy city (Reykjavik) and work at the café, he’s drawn to what he sees as her a similar combination of exasperation and rebellion. He teaches her to smoke cigarettes, then invites her to a museum after hours (“It’s spooky,” she observes, surrounded by eerie lighting and specimens in glass cases). In the back room they find a map, picking out places they want to see (and Iceland, which Nói describes as resembling a “spitwad”). Together in the green shadows of that closet, they imagine a world beyond the mountain that blocks their view just beyond the graveyard, beyond their bleak routines.
Just as Nói begins to imagine his escape, the film takes an absurd and yet oddly believable turn, given all the oppressive gloom that precedes. His life changed forever by a single event, Nói literally sees his life appear before his eyes on a television news report. That he turns instead to those island palm trees makes sad and bizarre sense.