One of the things Iceland is most known and respected for is the Icelandic horse so it was bound to happen that a movie in which the horse featured prominently would be made in Iceland, and here it is. It’s called Of Horses and Men (or Hross í Oss in Icelandic, which would translate literally to “Horses in Us”) and it’s a rather peculiar little film.
Director Benedikt Erlingsson is mostly known as an actor and theatre director in Iceland but recently he’s turned to directing movies, having made a couple of shorts in recent years, with this being his first feature-length film. It’s clear that he has a great love of horses and he’s made a film that very much an ode to the Icelandic horse, and man’s relationship with him. In this film horses are equal to men (the leading horses are even billed in the opening credits). You could even call it a sort of horse-fetish film.
The film has little in way of plot and at first really seems just like a collection of scenes, or vignettes, involving some people who live in a small town in the Icelandic countryside, and their relationships with their horses. But gradually these stories start to intertwine and eventually merge (well some of them, at least) through the relationships between the characters who’re all neighbors in a small farmland area.
Of Horses and Men is a somewhat experimental, borderline avant-garde sort of film as much of its consists of long shots of horses running around and close-ups of their various body parts, especially their eyes. It’s a very visual film with large portions of it having almost no dialogue and most of the dialogue that is there being rather sparse and mostly functional. Erlingsson is very much aware of cinema being a visual medium and takes full advantage of it, telling the story largely with the people’s, and horses’, actions and faces, rather than their words (or neighs). There are multiple close-up shots of things being reflected in the eye of a horse, but somehow it never gets tiresome. Erlingsson creates some visual poetry with the eye of a horse here.
The performers mostly do good, save for the occasional stiff line reading. Charlotte Bøving doesn’t say much with words here but manages to say a lot with her facial expression and Ingvar E. Sigurðsson is solid as usual. It’s also worth noting solid turns from newcomers Juan Camillo Roman Estrada, who’s funny a Spanish horse-loving tourist and 19-year old Sigríður María Egilsdóttir who plays a tough, Swedish woman who singlehandedly rescues half a dozen lost horses with a lot of conviction.
Still, even if Of Horses and Men can be lauded for making good use of the medium and being a one-of-a-kind type of film it’s doesn’t really succeed as a whole. It’s lack of plot or story is one thing, it’s tricky to make a film like that work and the parts here don’t quite hang together or manage to make a perfect whole. Certain characters are underdeveloped and you wish more had been done with them and some just don’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of the film. Notable is one story in which a man rides his horse into the sea and swims it to a russian fishing vessel so he can buy vodka of them. It’s a funny story but it’s got little to do with the rest of the film.
The main problem, though, is simply that you really have to love horses to love this movie. While Erlingsson does manage to show how majestic the horse can be, for someone who’s only been on the back of a horse once in his lifetime, a little more is needed.
Final verdict: Of Horses and Men is a strange and unique little film that makes good use of the medium and showcases the Icelandic horse and Icelandic nature very nicely, as well as sometimes being pretty funny. But it doesn’t amount to much in the end and its parts don’t cohere well enough as a whole. Horse lovers will adore this film but for others it’s mostly just an interesting curio, though still worth a look. Add one star to the rating if you really love horses.