Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Science, Faith and the Will To Survive

by Odienator
(click here for all TIFF pieces) 

Before the world premiere here in Toronto of his film, The Deep (Djúpið), director Baltasar Kormákur explained that he wanted to make a film that asked, and answered, what it meant to be from his home country, Iceland.  His main character, Gulli (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), endures both a harrowing fight for survival and a constant series of  medical tests designed to answer why he survived at all. Shot on location, The Deep chronicles Gulli’s six hour ordeal in the frigid North Atlantic Ocean after his boat capsizes. The ocean is so cold that normal men would fatally succumb to confusion and hypothermia within minutes. Gulli lasts not only six hours, he also makes the correct decisions to ensure his survival. The TIFF guide calls The Deep a “modern-day everyman myth,” but there is truth to it: According to Kormákur, the real-life Gulli  is considered a hero and a freak by his countrymen.

Kormákur and his co-screenwriter Jón Atli Jónasson weave both subtle and blatant metaphor into their narrative. Gulli’s tale is one of resilience applied to a country that has survived economic collapse and a year-long volcanic eruption on one of its islands. The weather and the environment are depicted as exceptionally harsh, yet commonplace to Icelanders. Against this backdrop, people go about their days drinking, working and raising families. Religion is also part of daily life, with numerous prayers offered up to de Lawd. God is interwoven into the fabric of The Deep, with His presence felt most in a scene that cross-cuts between the prayers of the doomed sailors and those of their families at home.

The Deep introduces these doomed sailors, and the one who lives, at the local bar. Gulli is a fisherman who sails on the North Atlantic in treacherous conditions in order to make a living. In this bar, he meets his fishing boat’s new cook, with whom he gets into a quick bout of female trouble. (That is, there’s a fight over a woman.) These early scenes show the ruggedness of the location and its inhabitants. After the crew shoves off for the vastness of the North Atlantic and its daily catch, The Deep becomes Gulli’s tale of survival against nature. The sea is a harsh mistress, but as we’ll discover, land isn’t so forgiving either.

Kormákur told the TIFF audience that his film was done without CGI, which makes the entire ocean sequence truly harrowing. The actors are really out there being thrashed around by the cruel surf. Ólafsson is really in the North Atlantic for take after take. A wide shot of Gulli floating alone with nothing around him seemingly for miles evoked Lean’s shots of Lawrence of Arabia standing in the desert. That overhead shot in the water haunted me for days, as I drowned once and am horribly afraid of open water. Once the barefoot Gulli swims to land, he has to not only climb slippery rocks while being battered by the ocean, he also has to walk two miles on jagged volcanic rock. The ordeal ruined the real Gulli’s feet. This too gave me nightmares. Ólafsson and Kormákur turn the simple act of knocking on a door into something cathartic; when Gulli finally reaches a human being who can help him—and that human is on Gulli’s home island—I finally let go of my seat.

From here, The Deep explores science vs. faith. Why did Gulli fight so long in that ocean? Unlike his colleagues, he had no wife and kids to inspire his need to survive. Ólafsson, who is exceptionally good, has a fine monologue while floating at sea, intercut with descriptive footage, where he explains what he'd do if God grants him one more day. He is willing to accept death after this one extra day, a take I didn’t expect. In return, he is granted several more days—years even—but the earliest of those days is filled with doctors and scientists poking and prodding him looking for answers. The heavy-set Ólafsson looks miserable in these passages, and you do feel for him. He just wants to move on, yet he has to keep reliving his ordeal to satiate others’ thirst for answers. “He has seal fat,” one doctor explains after a test. Gulli’s mother represents the other side of the science-faith equation: “How does one explain a miracle?”

The Deep’s last scene is its most compelling commentary on the nature of Icelandic life. Gulli’s last official act before the closing credits isn’t meant to be heroic by any means. It’s just business as usual, representing a stoicism inherent in anyone who traverses the more dangerous paths in life. Kormákur never answers the questions of how and why. His footage of the real Gulli during the closing credits is enough to satisfy my curiosity.

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