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THE JUNIPER TREE

A very good film, but not a particularly easy or enjoyable viewing experience. It deals with witchcraft in the middle ages and stars Bjork in her first film role, who acquits herself well.

The Package
     If youíve seen DANCER IN THE DARK (2000) youíll know the Icelandic ďalternative musicianĒ Bjork has an acting style and screen presence all her own. This largely forgotten Icelandic art film from 1989 marked Bjorkís first acting role, which remains impressive. 

The Story
     Margit is a mousy woman living with her mother and older sister Katla in medieval Iceland. One day Margitís mother is found dead, having been burned as a witch. Margit and her sister flee to a remote farm, where the widower Johann lives with his young son Jonas. Katla casts a spell that makes Johann fall in love with her. Jonas, however, grows increasingly resentful of her attentions.
     As for Margit, she takes to communicating with a ghostly woman she spots one day. The woman, who is Johannís deceased wife (and Jonasí mother), leads Margit into a spectral reality via a large hole in her chest(!).
     Meanwhile the tension between Jonas and Katla grows increasingly pronounced. It reaches a boiling point during a Cliffside confrontation, which concludes with Jonas stepping into the void on Katlaís urging. Katla tries to cover up the crime, but Margit knows what really happened from her visits with Jonasís ghostly mother. The question is, does she reveal all she knows or keep quiet and protect her sister?

The Direction
     The late Nietzchka Keene, whose filmography is quite scant outside this film, proved herself a talent to be reckoned with in THE JUNIPER TREE. Stylistically itís fully assured and cinematically quite impressive. The air of mysticism and superstition is convincing and naturalistically rendered, and Keene doesnít compromise her dark vision with a cop-out romance or tacked-on happy ending.
     The problem is that like most art films itís a picture one admires above all else. Entertainment-wise thereís very little to savor. The spare mountainous landscapes and black-and-white cinematography are bleak and uninviting, the characters remote and unapproachable, and nearly all the dialogue is delivered in solemn near-whispers. Some snatches of humor would have been welcome, but there are none to be found.
     What holds the film together is the performance of Bjork. She has a genuinely otherworldly presence that fits in perfectly with the filmís boldly atmospheric evocation of a strange and painful time.
 

Vital Statistics

THE JUNIPER TREE
Comstock/Rhino Home Video

Director/Screenwriter/Editor: Nietzchka Keene
Producers: Nietzchka Keene
Cinematography: Randy Sellars
Cast: Bjork, Bryndis Petra Bragadottir, Valdimar Orn Flygenring, Guorun Gisladottir, Geirlaug Sunna Pormar 

     

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