DVD Review: Shadow of the Raven (Í skugga hrafnsins)

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One-time enfant terrible of the Icelandic filmmaking community and self-confessed anarchist, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson is an uncompromising auteur. Initially ignored in his homeland, he is now regarded as one of modern Icelandic cinema’s founding fathers.

His previous film, The Raven Flies, made history as the first Icelandic co-production with an international partner. Despite a muted domestic response, the film was positively received overseas. In addition to winning the award for Best Director at the 20th Guldbagge Awards, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s creative vision was recognized when the film was voted one of the decade’s most outstanding films by the Tokyo International Film Festival.

Despite a tortuous production which jeopardized the director’s health, his commitment to producing authentic Viking period films remained undimmed. A second film in the trilogy, Shadow of the Raven, was released in 1988.

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During his childhood, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson listened to his grandmother as she retold Sagas. A body of literature possibly unparalleled in European civilization. The Sagas are an intrinsic part of Icelandic society. Influencing modern-day storytelling, they are an early example of frontier literature. Documenting the life of settlers and their descendants in the 10th and 11th centuries, the Sagas are a collection of narratives containing blood-soaked accounts of feuds, doomed love affairs, fights, vengeance, and reconciliation. Passed down orally through successive generations before being preserved in the 13th century by monks using berry-ink and calfskin vellum. A sophisticated literary form, the Sagas predate the emergence of the novel and share many of its characteristics. Renowned as one of the masterpieces of world literature, they have been ranked alongside Homeric epics and the work of William Shakespeare.

During pre-production on The Raven Flies Hrafn Gunnlaugsson explored the possibility of adapting a Saga before deciding to craft an original story that retained the flavour of that impressive body of literature. When beginning work on Shadow of the Raven he once again drew inspiration from the Sagas. Fusing elements from several Sagas, most notably Njal’s saga, he blended an indigenous mythology with an imported legend, Tristan and Isuelt.

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Obscured by the legacy of Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s previous film, Shadow of the Raven is arguably the trilogy’s standout moment. Boasting more mature direction, greater set pieces, and fatalistic character sketches, the film is a haunting epic.

An avowed enthusiast of John Ford, Sergio Leone, and Akira Kurosawa, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson continues to pay homage to Samurai Films and Spaghetti Westerns while demonstrating an appreciation of Ingmar Bergman. Cine-literate, the director embraces his influences and demonstrates a highly distinct voice.

Returning to Iceland after studying theology in Norway, Trausti (Reine Brynolfsson) find rival clans feuding over a beached whale. The year is 1077, it is a transitional moment in Icelandic history. Christianity has officially replaced the old religion although some of its trappings still exist in Icelandic culture.

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As two clans go to war, Trausti’s mother is mortally wounded. Rival clan leader Erikur is slain and his daughter Isold (Tinna Gunnlaugsdóttir) inherits his property and position. Daughter of a woman who was executed for practicing witchcraft, she is raising an illegitimate child. Promised in marriage to the son of the Bishop of Iceland, the union will create the nation’s biggest clan.

Blaming Trausti for the death of her father Isold vows to kill him. Swayed by his compassion and honesty she plans a marriage that will diminish the Bishop’s power.

Potent and epic, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s version of the tale of star-crossed lovers draws from Norwegian and Icelandic versions popular in the 12th and 13th centuries. Set during the period documented by the Sagas, the increased role of the then new Christian religion in Nordic versions differentiated it from English and French variants. In Shadow of the Raven, it is given greater prominence as it is used to underscore the clash between old and new models of Icelandic society. Ravens and white veils are used as visual motifs to symbolize the values and morality of the old paganism and new Christian religion.

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Showcasing Iceland’s spectacular landscapes to great effect, the film uses imposing clifftops, geysers, waterfalls, and coastal regions as backdrop for an authentic recreation of the nation’s commonwealth age.

More than a historical drama, it is a complex tale of doomed love that also explore’s the futility of revenge and religion’s hypocrisies. Relatively unknown in English-speaking territories, the film is the most significant cinematic adaptation of the legend since Jean Delannoy’s L’Éternel retour.

A subtitled DVD is available to order fron Nammi.is

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