Sweet Land - A Love Story was but a flicker during its criminally brief 2006 theatrical release, but it deserved much, much better. A lyrical film of gentle beauty, this exquisitely crafted romance is likely to linger in your consciousness long after the final credits roll.
Its bittersweet mood is set in the opening prologue, which comes from a Don Snyder memoir titled "Of Time and Memory": "Let us hope that we are all preceded in this world by a love story." That is essentially what Sweet Land is about, a warm, soulful valentine to all the love stories that have been lost to the vicissitudes of time.
Sweet Land begins with the death of an old woman, Inge (Lois Smith), in a Minnesota farmhouse. Her passing leaves her grandson (Stephen Pelinski) debating whether to sell his grandparents' rural property to a deep-pocketed developer. His dilemma leads us back in time incrementally, to the late 1960s and the death of Inge's husband, Olaf.
And then we recede further until we come to the heart of the film. It is the 1920s, and Inge Ottenberg (Elizabeth Reaser) is a mail-order bride from Norway, newly arrived in America to marry a taciturn Norwegian farmer, Olaf Torvik (Tim Guinee). Inge lugs a huge Victrola gramophone with her, a prized possession that doesn't make her particularly well-equipped for life in the New World. She can barely speak English beyond a few butchered phrases. And in the aftermath of the Great War, Olaf's friends and neighbors are horrified when they discover Inge is originally from Germany, not Norway.
Suddenly, there are roadblocks to the impending nuptials. Inge is unable to get citizenship papers. The town minister (John Heard) refuses to marry the pair, contending that the beautiful German woman is certain to corrupt the community's moral fiber. The xenophobia she encounters in post-World War I America is certain to resonate with many of today's moviegoers.
Olaf and Inge must live separately and slowly get to know one another. Inge moves in with Frandsen and his wife, Brownie (Alan Cumming and Alex Kingston), friends of Olaf who evidently don't know too much about birth control. Ostracized by much of the community, Olaf and Inge find that their shared adversity strengthens a growing bond between them.
It's fitting that the love story onscreen is mirrored by the commitment that writer-director Ali Selim obviously had for this project. He worked on the movie intermittently for 15 years; the care shows, and it shines through in the gorgeous cinematography of David Tumblety.
A film this enchanting owes much to the caliber of the acting. While the cast is uniformly excellent, Reaser and Guinee are sensational. Their performances are all the more impressive since so much of Sweet Land involves them speaking Norwegian and German without the benefit of English subtitles. It is a testament to the depth of the screenplay and the expressiveness of the players that there is never any doubt about what they are saying.
As is so often the case with 20th Century Fox DVDs, the advance screener supplied to this reviewer is probably not an accurate representation of what the final product will look like. Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1, the transfer is beset in spots by minor grain and a few ghost lines. Otherwise, the picture boasts vivid, painterly colors and realistic skin tones.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix is solid, if unremarkable. Viewers can opt for subtitles in English, Spanish and French.
A commentary features Ali Selim, Tim Guinee, Elizabeth Reaser, editor James Stanger and producer Gil Bellows. Selim and Stanger tend to dominate the remarks, but that's OK, since both are informative, interesting and full of anecdotes about the film's production.
Sweet Land: A Labor of Love Story is a fairly standard, albeit watchable, promotional featurette with on-set interviews of cast and crew. The DVD also includes a theatrical trailer.
Sweet-natured does not have to mean saccharine, so don't be thrown off when I say that Sweet Land - A Love Story is a fitting title for this enormously appealing rustic romance. Writer-director Ali Selim let this movie percolate in his head for some 15 years, and it was worth the wait.