When one thinks of Iceland there are no obvious symbols or signifiers that spring immediately to mind. Ice of course, and plenty of it, but not as much as Greenland. Then there’s Bjork, everybody’s favourite psychotic pixie songstress, geysers, outrageous prices and not a great deal else. Harsh perhaps – but in many ways this links to the subject of Dagur Kari’s film.
Noi Albinoi (Noi the Albino) revolves around its central character Noi, who on the surface is an archetypal teenage misfit. He has few friends and rarely attends school, but he’s not the typical teenage high-school geek of so many American films. Noi is a product of his environment, a desolate snow-covered town which offers nothing to do and few prospects for self-improvement. On a rare school visit he arrives in the middle of a maths exam, asks to borrow a pencil, writes his name, and hands in the paper; when his teacher tells him he will get 0.5% for writing his name, Noi replies ‘It’s better than I expected’. His father is an alcoholic taxi driver who berates his son for doing nothing with his life, while doing even less with his. Noi’s only hopes and dreams revolve around escape and, more specifically, escape with Iris the new girl at the gas station. In some of the film’s most touching scenes, his clumsy romantic advances are eventually requited and Noi finds a new-found meaning in life. That she is his only outlet for his dreams however, his only vision of a possible future, is clearly dangerous.
But the film is strewn with quirky, Scandinavian humour. The opening scene sets the pace when Noi’s Grandmother, unable to get Noi out of bed for school, walks into his bedroom with a shotgun and unloads a barrel out of the window. Later on, Noi enters the local bank with the same shotgun and attempts to rob them; he is thrown out by the bank manager – his best friend’s dad – who tells him he should know better. Having his final attempt of decisiveness and masculinity crushed, he re-enters the bank and fills out a form to take some money out.
It is fitting that Dagur Kari studied filmmaking in Denmark. His humour and style link to the bleak realism of Dogme, the absurdist black humour prevalent in Von Triers’ televison series Riget, and Anders Thomas Jenson’s recent film The Green Butchers. Kari’s film is not realist in a purist sense, but chooses to concentrate on the absurd nature of reality: the things that happen to Noi in a few weeks might be spread over a couple of years in real life. It is the comic cruelty of reality that Kari recognises so brilliantly in his eccentric characters. The bookshop owner for example, who sits in his customer-less shop wearing a T-Shirt with ‘New York Fucking City’ written on the front with a vast collection of empty Coca-Cola bottles out the back. The bitterly ironic references to the land of freedom and opportunity are all too clear. When he hears Noi’s dream of becoming a lawyer he cannot help but laugh, but the laughter veers uncomfortably close to tears.
Noi Albinoi conveys the bizarre, surreal nature of human existence. It makes no overt political point, and avoids attributing blame – the impression is that humans can only hold themselves responsible for the state of their own lives. The town does not simply exist, but has been designed and created by man. The mountain which looms over the town like Mount Fuji’s destitute cousin seems to symbolise nature’s longevity and resilience compared to the struggling, all-too-mortal humans beneath. In fact, the mountain turns out to play the final part in this stage of Noi’s life – how come fortune tellers in films are never wrong?