If you as sick of the boy meets girl and “hooks up” for a hot evening of passion, and falls in love (?) for ever and ever, but then not quite, then you will love Sweet Land. I did. This is the kind of movie that should have gotten an Academy Award nomination or two but would never have a chance since it was produced on a small budget and had no money for advertising. But don’t let that fool you. It is one of the finest movies of 2006 and was released on DVD in July of this year.
Sweet Land is a gentle period-piece based upon A Gravestone Made of Wheat, a short-story written by Will Weaver. The film explores the lives of early 20th century Norwegian immigrant farmers in Minnesota, just after the end of World War I. Written and directed by the son of Egyptian immigrants, Ali Selim, it bears the rich marks of the immigrant experience in a powerful and transcendent way. It is a gorgeous film, a nearly perfectly told story and extremely intelligent. What Selim accomplishes is the telling of a true love story but he doesn’t tell it without exposing us to the weaknesses of our fellow human beings and how we have always have had trouble assimilating foreigners into our way of life. In a time when immigration, legal or otherwise, is a huge issue once again for Americans we could all stand to deal with the emotions we feel by viewing a powerful movie such as Sweet Land.
The film begins with a technique that makes it very hard to grasp what is actually going on at first. The technique is a flashback within a flashback. An elderly woman (Inge) is dying and her grandson (Lars) is processing his grief. After she passes a local real estate agent delivers a bid from a developer who wants to build 1,200 homes on the land. As Lars contemplates this bid, and his family history, he recalls his grandmother after she lost her husband Olaf just a few years before. This brings the viewer into the three generations when Inge brings an old photograph of herself as a young mail order bridge who came to Minnesota to meet Olaf for the first time.
Inge (Elizabteh Teaser) is an attractive young woman with spirit. She is determined and independent both. She arrives by train with two suitcases and a large gramophone. Met by Olaf (Tim Guinee), who is a Stoic and soft-spoken Norwegian farmer, and his best friend Frandsen (Alan Cumming), a childlike and outgoing man, the story begins. Inge speaks almost no English and about the only phrase she knows soon comes in handy when she is asked if she is hungry after a long journey. “I could eat a horse,” she answers.
Almost as soon as Inge arrives she heads to the local Lutheran church where a wedding has been planned. But when the minister, Rev. Sorrensen (John Heard), meets Inge he refuses to perform the ceremony because her papers are not proper and she is a German. Memories of World War I are deep and patriotism is profoundly rooted in these people who resent all Germans and are convinced they cannot be trusted nor morally upright. Further, Olga’s papers state that she is a member of Rosa Luxemburg’s German Socialist Party, when fierce anti-Bolshevism had become the passion of the time. When Inge and Olaf approach a clerk, to get a local judge to perform the marriage ceremony, she is again met by fierce prejudice. She is informed that until she learns English and has her immigration papers in proper order there will be no wedding.
Inga moves into Olaf’s home, living in his bedroom while he sleeps in the barn. Her fierce independence and passion to pursue her cause keep her alive and determined. A deep romance eventually evolves between Inga and Olaf, both playing their respective roles with amazing ease and effect, but there is no sexual infidelity at all. They beautifully wait until the day comes when they can be properly married. But the community gossips begin to talk. One day the minister finds Inge waltzing on her front porch to the sounds of the gramophone and later announces to his church congregation, upon reading from 1 Corinthians, that the couple is living in sin and removes them from the church while they are seated in the rear of the congregation. If you want a picture of how to never deal with church discipline this one will provide it with full effect. (My grandfather was removed from a rural Baptist Church in much the same manner so this scene particularly moved me.)
Through hardship, toil and good faith Olaf and Inga grow to love one another and finally get married. Their love and bond eventually has a positive influence upon their narrow-minded community and the rigid ways of older immigrants. What is particularly striking to me is that the movie gave me a much deeper appreciation for the developing labor movement in this country and how it clashed with the interest of bankers and business. Lucrative farm disclosures were pursued by cruel and heartless bankers and a great deal of the politics of Minnesota and the upper Midwest was shaped by this right down to the present day. I think I understand this far better after seeing Sweet Land.
But don’t get me wrong. This movie is not about making political statements or advancing an ideological cause. It is about community, people their prejudices and the way they hurt one another. It is even more about the power of love to overcome such sin. The producer/writer Selim avoids sentimentality beautifully while he exposes the bold and continual contradictions of a nation built by immigrants who still reject immigrants to varying degrees.
Tom Guinee and Elizabeth Reaser rise to the occasion playing their lead roles as Olaf and Inga. Others contribute wonderfully to what became for me one of the finest movies of 2006-07. Sweet Land is rated PG for very partial nudity that is non-offensive entirely and for its mild language choices that are not appropriate for very small children. In the end this is really an excellent family film for anyone about nine or older. I would encourage church groups to watch it and then to discuss the implications of themes that run through the entire movie. Make sure you do not miss, however, the really important theme: “The greatest of these is love.”