Inge (Elizabeth Reaser) is a German immigrant sent to Becker Country, Minnesota for an arranged marriage to man she's only known through letters. The man turns out to be Olaf (Tim Guinee), a shy Norwegian farmer who maintains a solitary work life. When the local church finds difficulty with Inge's paperwork and birthplace and cannot marry them, Inge and Olaf decide to live together anyway, causing uproar in the community that threatens to ostracize them and ruin their chances at love and prosperity.
"Sweet Land" is a stunning, tenderly made picture that evokes a lush sensation of time and place. This is Minnesota farmland in the WWI era, resting on expansive open spaces where the breeze can play all day long and the sun reaches every nook and cranny.
Truthfully, however, "Sweet Land" won't win any awards when it comes to narrative innovation. This is an unhurried type of "Romeo & Juliet" story, set against the backdrop of small town religious repression and unmerciful industrial and economic growth. It contains all the genre basics: a meet cute, forbidden love, and slowly melting devotion. Actor John Heard portrays the Lutheran minister keeping Inge and Olaf apart, and his confusion with their living arrangement sets up a mild, but effective antagonistic relationship that helps develop the passions even further. Even spying a simple dance between these two unmarried people tightens his collar.
It helps that writer/director Ali Selim recognizes the film's classical structure, using it to create a meticulous portrait of the era and the landscapes to give his film its gracious personality. The Minnesota immigrant experience is not a subject routinely covered by filmmakers, providing Selim plenty of space to breathe in the hardship and work detail of the land, where bankruptcy was a growing concern for individuals unprepared for farming invention. Selim illustrates to the viewer the backbreaking labor, the homegrown payoff of the work, and the solitude of life on the prairie.
The director employs cinematographer David Tumblety to capture the sun-coated, heavenly vistas. "Sweet Land" is literally painted with light; each frame filled with a Midwestern sense of interior shadow and glow, while also permitting the expansive countryside to speak for itself in progressively more luminous ways that would make Terrence Malick green with envy. This is one of finest shot films of the year.
With the ice slowly melting between Inge and Olaf, "Sweet Land" turns into an unexpectedly sensuous affair as Inge grows more confident in her new home and with her husband to be. Selim concentrates on the looks and silence between these two, toying with the language barrier to create a more soulful way to express attraction. Actors Guinee and Reaser plays the parts superbly, expressing romantic yearning, Midwestern bluntness, and social frustration with the most minimal of dialog and movement. They bless "Sweet Land" with their hearts and enthusiasm, gracing the picture with a dramatic beauty that almost, almost, equals the scenery.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio), the "Sweet Land" DVD experience doesn't quite hold the celluloid wonder of theatrical exhibition. Still, the visual landscape is softly preserved and, with the exception of some troubling scenes of smeary darkness, does a superior job recreating those gorgeous Minnesota farming workdays.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital track delivers a respectable audio experience. A clean dialogue mix blends well with the lovely musical score selections, but nothing tests the track too severely. The DVD does this low-budget affair justice.
As a stealthy art-house, word-of-mouth hit last fall, "Sweet Land" doesn't arrive on the doorsteps of DVD with much baggage. It's almost unheard of to find a movie where the visuals and the passions of the film do all the speaking for the finished product, but "Sweet Land" is such a picture. However, two supplemental features try to uncover how this little featherweight fighter of a movie found its way into the hearts of audiences willing to take a chance with their moviegoing dollar.
First up is a feature-length audio commentary with director Ali Selim, producer Gil Bellows, editor James Stanger, and actors Elizabeth Reaser and Tim Guinee. Much like the film they've assembled to watch, the commentary is a gentle, hushed affair. Too often, the track will veer into "nooo, I love you more!" territory, but Selim stays on target for most of the running time, passing along tidbits on how this million-dollar feature went from a dream to a reality.
- Selim made it his mission to break flashback stereotypes with "Sweet Land," preferring to employ a more dreamlike structure. His effort was entirely successful, lending the film a haunting quality that's irresistible.
- "Sweet Land" took 15 years (!) to develop as a screenplay.
- Co-star John Heard was often swarmed by the children of Montevideo, Minnesota, forcing him to sign his autographs as, "The 'Home Alone' Dad."
- "Sweet Land" is the first "carbon neutral" film. The production took great efforts to not leave a "footprint" behind during the creation and post-production of the feature.
- While shot in the goose-hunting capitol of the world, the geese that fly through the frame during the picture are CG creations; a production realty that seems to make Selim slightly dizzy to recall.
An 11-minute featurette, entitled "Sweet Land: A Labor of Love Story" explores the various production personalities that took a chance on such a personal film. Actors Guinee, Reaser, Alan Cumming, and Alex Kingston are interviewed, along with Selim, and short-story author Will Weaver. Shot on location, this short remembrance doesn't benefit from hindsight, but the talking points are appreciated, along with some fascinating B-roll of production.
Finally, a theatrical trailer is included on the DVD.
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