Danish cinema received a strong vote of confidence and a winning boost this weekend; two films from the Tribeca Film Festival won top dramatic jury prizes. And “Virgin Mountain,” a Danish-Icelandic film directed by Icelandic-born, Danish-raised Dagur Kári (“Noi the Albino” and the sorely underrated “The Good Heart” with Paul Dano and Brian Cox) won the coveted jury prize for best narrative feature film (and two other major prizes; Danish film “Bridgend” took three other baubles).
And while the award may set expectations the movie can’t quite match, Kári’s fourth feature film is still a thoughtful, engaging, and compassionate look at the lonely outsider and his quiet emptiness. The movie’s name comes from its protagonist, Fúsi (Gunnar Jónsson), a hulking mass of a man who is untouched, cloistered, and naïve. This is not a foreign version of Judd Apatow’s “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” though on the surface it may read like the dramatic version of a similar story. Virginity and sex aren’t remotely Kári’s films concern, as “Virgin Mountain” centers on connection, lack thereof, and human empathy. If we’re going to use the title as metaphor, “Virgin Mountain” is about the isolated hermit coming down from the cold reaches up top to see how the rest of the world lives.
43-years-old Fúsi is a quiet, socially awkward man who still lives with his mother and keeps to himself. Working at an airport in the baggage handling department, he is ill-treated by his co-workers and generally viewed as the strange, fat man too timorous to make waves. With one friend (Sigurjón Kjartansson) and an armada of toys, figurines, and models at his disposal, Fúsi isn’t avoiding the world so much as he just doesn’t have much interest — though we can imagine from years of harassment, bullying, and mocking, the overweight and shy man likely learned to turn inward and escape from the world. Fúsi is the classic example of arrested development, but without the dick jokes. This is the sad, near tragic version of a stunted man living out a minimal happiness and just repeating his monotonous routine day in and day out.
Fúsi’s world, however, changes at the behest of his mom’s boyfriend who buys him country music dancing lessons as a birthday present as an excuse to push the timid and reclusive manchild to go out and socialize. In doing so, Fúsi meets Sjöfn (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir), a kind and open-minded woman who begins to change the big giant’s outlook and open him up to the possibilities of the world around him. And yes, this narrative is familiar — the woman who gives the adult-lescent male his wings, nourishes his sense of self-esteem, and maybe teaches him how to dress — though “Virgin Mountain” is wary enough to dismantle the formula before it can become too rote.
While a well-observed, careful, and nuanced character study, the deliberately unfolding “Virgin Mountain” does take time to really click emotionally. When some major conflicts arise — the tender relationship with the little girl next door who becomes interested in the gentle giant feels doomed from the start — this is when the wintry melancholy of Kári’s movie begins to defrost. As Fúsi begins to suffer some heartbreakingly difficult and unjust situations, our valves of empathy truly open up and the movie begins to humanize the character beyond what might feel like an honest, but detached sympathy for his loneliness.
If the movie tells us Fúsi is withdrawn, unsocialized, and alienated from the world, then “Virgin Mountain” begins to show us how that feels and manifests in its second half. We see Fúsi beyond the equivalent of the dude living in his mom’s basement interested in toys, heavy metal, and other tchotchkes, and the audience begins to experience him as a real person and thus his estrangement and the silent pain he carries. This is where the ache and inherent sadness of Kári’s movie can be heartrending. As Fúsi takes on hardship and greets it with deeper kindness, the picture’s moving qualities really glow.
Story wise, “Virgin Mountain” can feel customary and predictable. We’re not surprised when different relationships go south and the conclusion, while well-earned, does feel a little pre-ordained. And the frozen chill of the film’s wintry setting can become a little overly depressive. Still, there’s lot to admire about “Virgin Mountain,” from Kari’s tender restraint to Kjartansson’s subtle performance, and the poignant score, also composed by the filmmaker (under the moniker Slowblow), does the film wonders. A nuanced portrait of a misfit not as odd as we might have imagined, “Virgin Mountain” can be a hair too delicate and precious at times, and it has its soft clichés. But its warmth and sensitivity is heartfelt enough to melt its cold exterior. [B]
“Virgin Mountain” won the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature and the Best Screenplay prize at Tribeca, while Gunnar Jónsson was named Best Actor in a Narrative Feature Film.