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101 Reykjavik

Much like any other country, Iceland is a web of contradictions. Founded by Norse settlers as a waypoint between Scandinavia and North America, it remains the least-densely populated country in Europe. With much of the terrain covered by snowcapped mountains, people live primarily in coastal cities and towns, although the volcanic activity that crested the island above the Atlantic ensures there is an endless supply of hot water from innumerable springs, and outdoor pools remain open year-round. Iceland boasts the highest literacy rate in the world (100%), and Icelandic, Danish, and English are commonly spoken. The country also has the oldest functioning parliament on earth and a rich tradition of liberal democracy. But while unemployment has fallen in recent years, suicide rates are above European averages, and alcoholism remains an ongoing social problem. Actually, according to Baltasar Kormánkur's independent film 101 Reykjavik, when it's 30 below zero and there's just five hours of daylight, if you don't have a job you might as well get plastered. Or at least, so says Hlynur (Hilmir Snær Gudnason) — the 30-year-old resident of Reykjavik draws a disability pension from the government and lives at home with his mom Berglind (Hanna María Karlsdóttir). For Hlynur, each week simply passes into the next. He sits in front of his iMac for a good chunk of the day, and falls asleep to the endless porn programming he finds on satellite television. On Friday night, he goes out drinking in the local pub, where folks get totally wrecked and pair off for casual sex. Saturday night isn't so different — Hlynur considers it a "sequel" to the night before in the pub, except everyone who got killed turns up again. But if life offers little purpose, at least it can get a little loopy. Particularly when Berglind's Spanish friend Lola (Victoria Abril) arrives for a visit. A dance teacher, the sexual tension between her and Hlynur is palpable, although Hlynur occasionally sees another girl. Yet by New Year's Eve they find themselves in the throes of passion; it's later that Berglind tells Hlynur that Lola is her lesbian lover, and that they are planning to start a life together. And they might as well — Lola's somehow just become pregnant.

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Based on the novel by Hallgrímur Helgason, 101 Reykjavik is the product of independent film-financing common to small European productions. Actor-turned-director Baltasar Kormákur drummed up cash both from government funds and European studios, although it's a fair guess that the project wasn't an easy sell. After all, Euro-indies often do best when they function as glittering postcards of exotic, foreign locales, primarily if they are to be profitable in the lucrative American market. 101 Reykjavik is as charming as small films come, but it's to Kormákur's credit that he did not deliver a romanticized version of his country. The city of Reykjavik certainly has an appealing Scandinavian quality, and the few exterior panoramas show off Iceland's famous geological attractions (one scene outside a rural church is so gorgeous you may want to book a vacation right there). Yet the story could take place anywhere — it isn't endemic to Iceland, but rather any city or town with a small, isolated population. And with that, 101 Reykjavik taps into a theme that has a broad appeal within modern literature and cinema — the trials of a young, aimless man who cannot identify the purpose of life or his proper place within it, and thus resorts to emotional withdrawal or self-destructive behavior. From The Catcher in the Rye to The Graduate to Igby Goes Down, it's an engrossing archetype that can be spun in infinite directions, and will be for some time yet. Here, Hilmir Snær Gudnason plays Hlynur with a sad humanity — occasionally hostile (he fantasizes about unloading a shotgun on a dull family Christmas dinner), more often inert, but always able to find dark humor in everyday things. The story is interspersed with his own wry commentary, which is wickedly funny with ruminations on sex, drinking, and life itself, which Hlynur considers to be the thing that happens between death. As Lola, Victoria Abril is an alluring arrival (the score features several different arrangements of The Kinks' "Lola"), and the story is populated by locals who illustrate the island's various social cliques. For a film that threatens to be somber, 101 Reykjavik is touchingly sweet, and it offers a witty, upbeat ending that indicates there may be hope yet for Hlynur. Wellspring's DVD release features a clean anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The script alternates between Icelandic and English dialogue, and English subtitles are available. Supplements include cast notes, a trailer gallery, and Web links. Keep-case.
—Robert Wederquist

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