May 24, 2007

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Sweet Land (PG)
An illegal alien to America is unable to marry her foreign-born fiancť and endures the suspicion and hostility of her neighbors even though sheís just trying to make a better life for herself in Sweet Land, a quiet romance with bits of family saga.

Those Germans, sneaking into our country to marry our Norwegian-born farmers and take all our good farmerís wife jobs. Why, they might change our culture, with their brauts and their Oktoberfest.

Well, actually, in Sweet Land the main objection to Inge (Elizabeth Reaser) seems to be that she makes her coffee too black ó much blacker than an American would make it, says Minister Sorrensen (John Heard). He refuses to marry Inge to Olaf (Tim Guinee) when, upon her arrival to Minnesota, he discovers that sheís German (not Norwegian like all his other parishioners) and the only official papers she can produce are a card saying sheís a member of the socialist party (due to her almost non-existent English she mistook a party organizer for an immigration agent at the train station). Itís just after World War I and the community is aghast ó Olaf canít marry a German. Olaf knew nothing about Inge when she arrived (his parents picked her out for him) but doesnít seem all that concerned about her heritage, only that all this talk about immigration papers and delayed weddings will take time away from his work on the farm.

Without being entirely convinced that itís necessary, Olaf arranges for Inge to live with his friend Frandsen (Alan Cumming) and his wife Brownie (Alex Kingston) and their nine children (I think nine ó that many squirming, Scandinavian children are hard to count). Naturally, Inge quickly grows tired of sharing a bed with five kids and decides to damn convention and move back in with her to-be husband. Minister Sorrensen and the rest of the community arenít quite so progressive, however, as our phonograph-carrying heroine.

If the movie has any particular message about immigration itís that our immigration restrictions have always been kind of stupid and fear-based. The officials who stand between Inge and citizenship seem more concerned with wielding petty power than some vague notion of national good. Perhaps in 90 years our current immigration woes will also seem quaint. If this movie is any indication, weíll probably have found a new group of immigrants to act irrational over.

The movie occasionally brings us forward in time to meet Ingeís grandson and introduce the changing relationship the generations have to this land. We get the full scope of family history here ó immigration, the moving off the land, a familial bond to what (in the 2004 scenes) is now like an ancestral home. We also get a love story ó if a very timid one ó about people who are bound together first and then get to know each other. The movie is also very quietly, very politely a love story and itís at its best when we see the taciturn Olaf and Inge try to figure each other out.

The movie gives a very light touch to everything; even the scenes of societal shunning arenít all that harsh and the love story isnít all that passionate. For a melting pot tale, this one is fairly polite. And yet, a decision to leave most of the German and Norwegian dialogue untranslated helps to make us understand the frustration Inge feels at being adrift in a strange place with her only ally a man whom she also, mostly, doesnít understand. (Ingeís Norwegian, it seems, is only a bit better than her English). The movie rather deftly allows us to grasp how foreign America feels to Inge and how potentially isolating her life might be. B-

Rated PG for brief partial nudity and mild language. Directed by Ali Selim and written by Selim from a short story by Will Weaver, Sweet Land is an hour and 50 minutes long and is distributed by Forward Entertainment. It is finishing a run at Wilton Town Hall Theatre and will be released on DVD on July 10.