Slow-moving ‘Sweet Land’ is worth the wait

Stewart Oksenhorn
Elizabeth Reaser as Inge in Ali Selim's SWEET LAND, opening Fall 2006.

Ali Selim worked predominantly in commercials before breaking into feature filmmaking. That background shows up in his first feature, “Sweet Land” – not in the habits he acquired, but in the methods and techniques he has turned his back on. Where commercials are slick and fast, designed to grab the viewer’s attention from the get-go, “Sweet Land” revels in some of the most patient, sedate storytelling imaginable.

No doubt “Sweet Land” will unfold too slowly for some tastes. But those who let this tale seep in will find that director and screenwriter Selim makes observations about big issues – immigration and assimilation, love and the work ethic, community and generations of family – that would be impossible with the quick-cut techniques of commercials. Not to mention the often equally quick-cut realm of the modern blockbuster.Selim and “Sweet Land” start with an unusually calm protagonist, Inge (Elizabeth Reaser). An immigrant just arrived in the U.S. (not just the States, but the heartland of rural Minnesota) in the 1920s, Inge has little reason for her serenity. She doesn’t speak English; she is separated from her traveling companion immediately upon arrival. And there seems to have been a mistake, either in her identity or her destination; the farming community where she lands is resolutely Norwegian in its heritage. Inge, however, has come from Germany. Bad enough that she’s not Scandinavian, but the U.S. has just emerged from World War I, and anything German is suspect.The community elders react accordingly and don’t make life easy for the newcomer. The paperwork she needs to become a citizen – and a bride – is handled at a snail’s pace. For some, such as the generally decent minister (John Heard), this seems against their better nature. For the town’s wealthy banker (Ned Beatty), it is almost a point of pride to deny the outsider her place.

But Inge treats such hostility as beside the point – and it is. She has come to the States to be married, to the farmer Olaf (Tim Guinee), and she resolutely ignores the larger community to focus on her man. In the eyes of the town, Olaf is ideal – an immigrant from Norway, devout, a hardworking farmer. As a potential mate, he is imperfect – socially awkward, almost silent, intimidated by the idea of marital relations. But he warms to the role of protector and develops an admirable devotion to his bride-to-be. When she has no place to stay, Olaf lets her in, despite the sinful status of their co-habitation. When she is shunned from church, Olaf exits with her.”Sweet Land” doesn’t rush to its resolution. Inge speaks no English and rather than fast forward to the time when she can, the film lingers on the early stages in her new surroundings. Thus there is little dialogue, only stilted exchanges between her and Olaf. Director Selim takes it a step further and doesn’t even provide the subtitled text of their conversation. Instead, we get a quiet, disorienting experience – a reflection of what Inge is going through. When the film moves into a slightly faster gear, we feel the pressures – social, religious, economic, even technological – that make any romantic relationship a long shot.With a quiet but visceral determination, Inge and Olaf make their way to a sweet end, revealed in the present-day scenes that serve as the story’s bookends. Filmgoers are wise to take a cue from the couple: “Sweet Land” requires a measure of resolve and some adjustments, but a meaningful conclusion is in store.

“Sweet Land” shows Monday through Wednesday, March 12-14, at the Wheeler Opera House.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is