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.
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.
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
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
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