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‘Under the tree,’ an Icelandic saga of common men and women

Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurosson has brought to Venice Under the Tree, his third feature film. Of those your correspondent has seen so far in the third day of the Festival, it is perhaps the most accomplished movie overall.

In the tradition of oral history that Icelanders have practiced for centuries, there is not one word too many.

Domestic dramas unfold that spiral into a vortex that draw into it two families, with bloody consequences. All is happening under the shadow, literal and metaphorical, of a large tree, which looked like a plantain to this writer. All that can go wrong, will.

Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) is the unlikely hero, who may appear weak at first sight. There are several layers of analysis, but one stands out: the ascent of women in the West as men are being displaced to equal partners, or sometimes less. That, and manipulative skills of their wives and girlfriends, stirs up passions that engulf men in a sea of violence.

It all starts with an embarrassing situation. Atli is trying to stimulate himself to the sight of a sex tape featuring himself and a lover. His wife, Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir), finds him. You would think the worst that would happen is their split. But as a divided house collapses unto itself, the building blocks claim many more victims.

Men are generally trying to be reasonable but women, right as they are (as seen from their side of the fence) worsen conflict as they become self-righteous. Until men, even as they are trying to defuse a situation that is getting out of hand, are left to deal with their problems with their hands as they always have.

It is a story of conflict of men and women, as common and prone to weaknesses as you and me. There are no divinities in the movie, just the material world of living creatures, houses, cars, stores and workplaces in which we all live. The only gods are our passions. And the characters are as flawed as anyone, as heroes and antiheroes in the sagas were, too.