For context, here is the movie in its entirety: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oh7sQ4hPnyk
The Last Farm explores many themes – such as dignity, vanity, pride, and self-worth – while saying very few words at all. The film’s focus on Hrafn, an old man who has recently lost his wife but refuses to tell anyone, powerfully demonstrates that how we are remembered is far more important than longevity. Additionally, the film discovers where true beauty is found by placing the main character in a very remote and idyllic setting. Hrafn’s shocking decision in the end raises questions about mortality and nature in a way few other short films have.
We open on a wide shot of the sea and Hrafn docking his canoe after a presumable rowing session. The weather conditions are clear but obviously freezing. There is not another house, person, or animal in sight; his only company is the mountains. Right away we get a perfect sense of the character before we even meet him: he does not fear death, otherwise he would not be canoeing in freezing temperatures at his old age with no one around to help. We also get a sense of the solitudinous life that he prefers. The next shot, which is of him sawing logs, establishes Hrafn as self-reliant. The film has a tendency to be remarkably economical, such as here, and yet the viewer feels that no characterization or emotion is ever lacking. From these two shots, which have no dialogue, I could gather that the cabin behind him was almost certainly built by his own hands – a noteworthy accomplishment for a silent minute and a half.
In the next scene, Hrafn makes soup while listening to the weather forecast on the radio. This alone seems hardly cinematic, as they are just about the two most static activities one could hope to film. But by holding the camera on them, the director begs a question of the viewer: why is this important? And because of the curiously rugged and intrepid opening scene, I actually want to think about the question. He could be listening to music or to talk radio, but he only wants to know about the climate in surrounding cities. This tells me that, for whatever reason, nature is now his only companion. Knowing the weather in other cities is to know what his friends are up to. Songs with themes about humanity are deafened to him and the news apparently does not interest him. Another subsequent ‘why’ is thus raised, and it is answered by a phone call.
Interestingly enough, the film cuts away to an exterior shot of the house just a few seconds after Hrafn has picked up the phone. Where one film might take the call as an opportunity for mere exposition, the director wisely keeps the attuned viewer guessing. It’s such an awkward cut that I almost lose focus on the content of the call itself. The timbre of Hrafn’s voice tells me that he does have some affection for his family on the other end of the call, but the light of his voice is a little extinguished. As he protests the move to a luxurious retirement home, he is framed by the life he has built for himself with the exterior shot of the house. Given the natural fit of the house and the man inside, the idea of his family taking him somewhere else seems visually preposterous. Here he also takes the opportunity to discuss the weather, thus re-emphasizing his roots in nature, not civilized society. Immediately the viewer understands a clash between what Hrafn and his family view as important, thanks in large part to the cinematography.
At last the main question of the movie is posed: why does Hrafn want to keep Groa’s death a secret? So far, Hrafn has refused to let anyone into his isolated life – he even calls for groceries rather than going into town – and seems to take pride in his independence and care-giving. When Hrafn sleeps next to bed in the deceased Groa, it’s certainly uncomfortable for the viewer, but in the context of the scene, it doesn’t feel unnatural. The beauty of their relationship was that it seemed to be outside of civilized expectations; in other words, they were free. Since ‘society’ consists of only himself and the cabin, he finds a way to cheat death: if she’s not dead to him, she’s still alive in a sense. Hrafn’s humanity comes not from trying to keep her alive forever necessarily, but from keeping her death secret until he could bury her his way. Her coffin is handmade and the contraption to bury them is rigged in such a way that it requires no other human contact. There’s something just so beautiful about the way Hrafn made every effort to return their bodies to nature and shun ‘conventional’ funeral proceedings.
The unusual ending caused me to re-examine the sparse lines of dialogue that Hrafn spoke throughout the movie. The comment of most import comes when his friend remarks that he has rounded up two-thirds of his sheep and Hrafn replies, “I suppose they thought they’d escape the slaughterhouse”. This sentiment expresses death as a non-romanticized necessity, but in its moribund frankness, it also conveys an acceptance that many others struggle to find. Hrafn’s family would probably prefer that he go to the luxurious retirement home and not suffocate himself in dirt, but Hrafn has a very real grasp on his mortality that the ‘sheep’ – meaning general public – seem to lack. He has chosen, in his mind, the best possible ending to his life and not the path that lacks dignity, i.e. the path of waiting to die alone. However, Hrafn would come off as an old miser if not for asking his friend to post a letter to Lilja. I suppose I’m rapt in admiration at how well Hrafn is able to tie a bow on death.
For all the encomium I’ve given the movie, what puzzles me most is why the last scene is in the movie. The director had a perfect fade-to-black with the dirt showering over the camera, but then we come back to the family pulling up and the camera panning up to the sky. I know the filmmaker wants the audience to know that the family finds Hrafn and Groa buried underneath the dirt. However, I believe it is a mistake on several levels. One, it’s superfluous. We knew they were on their way and there’s no reason to believe they would change course. For another thing, it ruins the perfection of death that Hrafn worked so hard to establish. Sure, his plan worked and they didn’t get to him in time; but in the context of the movie, the audience sees their arrival and it lessens the atmosphere of isolation. Even worse, the camera pans up to the sky to just slap the viewer across the face with the message. We get it. They were good, well-liked, God-fearing people and their souls are ascending toward heaven. Gag me. The movie struck such a great chord of subtlety by speaking through action and then that happened. Worse still, the movie had almost nothing to do with religion, aside from the cross on the grave and the Bible that Groa was buried with. Perhaps the shot would have been less officious if the camera stopped at the mountains, since the movie is implicitly about man’s relationship with nature, but it didn’t and it was a huge mistake.
Conversely, the movie has perfect shots as well, such as when the cinematographer wisely chooses a 360 shot of Hrafn dressed up to the nines, surrounded by the lake and by the mountains. This shot helps to attenuate the bleakness of a man burying himself alive because we get a full panorama of the beauty he is buried beneath. Before the dirt swallows him, he already seems to be swallowed by the vast, pastoral landscape. The redundancy of being swallowed up has the effect of reducing the would-be martyrdom aspect; fortunate, because the movie celebrates the permanence of death rather than fearing it.
Another perfect shot is when Hrafn washes himself and looks at himself in the mirror. Usually when a character looks at himself in the mirror, it is a time of self-reflection (no pun intended), but in Hrafn’s case, it seems to merely be a moment of physical recognition. So much of his life has apparently been spent apart from society that just to see a person in the mirror is a little startling to him; for that person to be recognized as himself borders on alarming. It’s an important moment for the film because the viewer realizes Hrafn is not numb to the loneliness of his life post-Groa. For much of the movie, he seems to have acclimated to the present reality with almost superhuman aplomb. This moment makes me really care about the man being buried by a truckful of dirt; in his final moments, he can no longer ignore his corporeal being.
Hrafn seems to reject typical post-mortem plans for his spouse and himself, as hilariously accentuated through one scene of dramatic irony. There is a long set-up before the final (or should-have-been-final) scene in the grave of Hrafn applying lipstick to Groa, him washing his face, and putting on his best suit. The dark punchline to this set-up is that he’s going to pull a rope and dirt is going to cover their beautified appearances. Not only is this a middle finger to what his family wants for him, but it is also a middle finger to the idea of wealth that seems so highly regarded by the rest of society, e.g. ‘living in the lap of luxury’ at the retirement home. The viewer can imagine that the old man probably owned one or very few suits – not many are needed, given his location – and he just ruined it. The audience then also must realize their own absurdity in spending thousands of dollars to dress up dead people and put them in the dirt.
The music in The Last Farm is also well-suited. Overlaying the funeral preparations on-screen are long, sustained, morose notes from a violin and a cello, yet they come in softly and linger without manipulating the viewer’s emotions. Often to assess the impactfulness of the music, I try to imagine the movie without it or with a different score. The violin has an inherent squeal and moan that sets the viewer on edge when employed correctly; this is opposed to, say, the piano, which has a constancy to its resonance. The violin and cello are always unique in their sound, since they are fully dependent on the finesse of the player and the bow. It fits Hrafn better than a piano score because he is an independent craftsman, not someone who improvises within an invariable situation (i.e. the piano’s perfectly tuned keys vs. the volatility of a violin’s strings). Additionally, if the score were not so baleful, I don’t think the sense of loss would come across appropriately. The string arrangement keeps me invested in the movie by adding another layer of unnerving isolation to an already-desolate movie. The mastery of the film is that new layers of grief are added right until the end.
The writing in The Last Farm is exemplary because, apart from the aforementioned last scene, the heavy themes are rarely on-the-nose and are addressed by being talked around. Instead of us being told how brave Hrafn has been after losing his spouse, we see his hermetic life going on uninterrupted. Ruminations about the inevitability of death come in friendly small talk with an acquaintance. The eschewal of material possessions is visually demonstrated (re: burial) rather than the character passing any sort of judgment on them. Laying with his corpse wife is endearing rather than creepy because his intentions are to respect the intimacy of her death – something that would have been encroached upon if his family got involved. The ultimate epitaph of Hrafn’s character, for me, is that he didn’t speak about dying with dignity, he just kept quiet and did it; and in doing so, he died with the upper hand against death.