For wearing the disguise of an underground, independent American feature film, Minnesota native and director Ali Selim’s Sweet Land is deceptively well-put together. It is an assured look at familial and romantic bonds and small town ideas of community. There are a lot of ideas packed into the proceedings, but the viewer is never condescended to with saccharine philosophizing or preaching: this is one of the most honestly good-natured films I have seen in a long time.
Based on Will Weaver’s 1989 short story “A Gravestone Made of Wheat”, the film opens with an epic, fluid flashback. Many disjointed images flash across the screen: First we see an elderly woman lying in bed, presumably dying and hallucinating. Then there is a white farm house seemingly in the middle of nowhere set against a stark, clouded gray sky. There is a quick flash of a woman being photographed.
There are many characters introduced in the first few minutes (some wearing contemporary garb, other dressed in rags from out of the past), and a kaleidoscope of farm imagery. When the filmmakers finish with this dynamic, effective opening sequence, it is clear that three distinct time periods have just been explored: the ‘20s, the ‘60s, and the present. At first, the rapid-fire succession of fragmented images seems a little bit sloppy, but as the film progresses, and the back-story begins to unfold, each seemingly random image has an explanation.
As the film starts to unfurl, flashing back and forth through these time periods, we first meet the central character of Inge (played by Elizabeth Reaser as a young woman, and the brilliant character actress Lois Smith as the senior version) as an old woman who has just lost her husband. To the veteran performer’s credit, she is able to convey with a single glance a life’s worth of sadness and passion.
There are so many tender details packed into her delicate performance in the first few minutes she is onscreen (and it is absolutely glorious to see this actress land a decent role), that it quickly becomes clear that Sweet Land will be, first and foremost, a beautiful, old-fashioned love story—one that is filled with unforgettable images of nature: the glacial blue sky, the fuzzy golden sheen of the crops glistening and rustling in the purplish twilight sun, and the other-worldly ethereal green prairie are all equally important “characters”.
Just as quickly as we get acquainted with the elder Inge, we are transported back to the very beginning of the romance, when as a mail order bride she is dropped off in rural Minnesota to meet her betrothed, Olaf (Tim Guinee, quiet and strong). Inge (at this time played by Reaser) is a German sent to live in America among the Norwegian immigrant community. Speaking no English and Norwegian, she is immediately alienated by the cliquish, tight-knit band of small-towners who are still smarting from Germany’s anti-American sentiment during World War I. There is a palpable air of suspicion towards the mysterious stranger, and more than one accusation that she is a spy.
Minister Sorrensen (John Heard, who has been sadly MIA as of late) immediately goes on the offensive and lets the couple know that there is no way for them to be properly married. He publicly dismisses Inge (and, shockingly, all foreigners and other outsiders) as being “idolaters and immorals”. Which, of course, is a preposterous, misguided message; it’s another scathing look at just how hard it is to be a non-English speaking immigrant in this country. One surprising realization is that this section of the film is taking place in the ‘20s, and not much has changed as far as attitudes towards cultural hybridity goes.
The small-mindedness of the clergyman continues, as he equates non-English speakers with being “the enemy”. When the Minister finds the couple dancing playfully together, he commands the congregation to shut them out completely. He scares the followers into thinking that they could become “tainted” by pair’s “sinfulness”. The inherent fear and judgment of the community forces the pair to enter into a “sinful” living situation: they are unmarried, yet the woman has nowhere to go. Lucky for Olaf, Inge is handy with a scythe and the couple begins to fall in love as they harvest the land’s crop. Olaf teaches the young woman to speak English amidst the scattered corn husks and the aged, dangerous-looking farm machinery.
The mise-en-scene is evocative, yet elegant, reflecting the quote that begins Sweet Land: “Let us all hope that we are preceded in this life by a love story”. There is a scene that briefly shows Inge standing in the stables against an inky, bucolic landscape. Her rigid, starchy garments seem to constrict her as she dutifully soldiers through the daily chores. It is a blink-and-you-miss-it sort of moment that gives Selim a knockout chance to display a Terence Malick-like gift for capturing and putting together very painterly images with very little dialogue (and as a film enthusiast who has a penchant for the master, I do not make that comparison frivolously!). In fact, the two leads have very little to say at all over the course of the film, as far as actual words go—an that is a refreshing change of pace.
The film, over its course, scathingly explores the hang-ups of small town America, and the prejudices it can sometimes harbor against the unknown. This can be read as a very modern, astute commentary by the filmmakers on our contemporary society as well as taking the time the film is set in to task. It is a relatable jumping off point for anyone who has ever been ostracized or vilified for being different or unique. Also explored is the value of a hard day’s labor, the thought that a good work ethic will be its own reward. There are several of these forgotten, traditional ideals placed throughout Selim’s movie, and in every single one of them, there are valuable, simple life lessons that can be gleaned.
This home-spun wisdom may be a bit antiquated and cornball to some, but the sweetness and good intentions are clear. The interesting cast of characters that flows through the film (and this is indeed a wonderful, overlooked ensemble), along with the stunning camera work conspire to gently portray this epic, pastoral-set love story in a way a big-budget film could never accomplish without feeling artificial. Selim raised about $1 million to produce the film himself, mostly from private investors in Minnesota, which makes Sweet Land a clear labor of love. It may be predictable at times, but there is such an innate sweetness that it will sweep viewers along in the romance, the nostalgia, and the beautiful sense of what it is like to overcome adversity to truly create and become part of a supportive community.