Do childhood wounds ever heal, or do they just wait for the right circumstances to erupt anew? A haunting documentary about Jewish children hidden during World War II and a tragicomic Icelandic family melodrama suggest that we never really recover from those tender attachments and deprivations.
At nine months, Aviva Slesin was smuggled out of a Lithuanian ghetto in a suitcase and sent to live with a Christian couple. When she was three, her mother returned from a death camp to reclaim her. Secret Lives is her exploration of the bonds uniting people like herself to those rare gentiles who hid and saved them. “My mother gave me life, but she gave me life again,” a man says of the courageous Polish matriarch who kept him shut in a closet for the war’s duration. For some survivors, gratitude still vies with a sense of irredeemable debt. Both they and their rescuers frequently felt abandoned when provisional families disbanded, and children were surrendered to competing claims. Slesin’s film is a profound meditation on the resilience of children—their ability to take sustenance from whatever love is available—and on the persistent presence of the child hidden within each grown-up.
A different reunion is the focus of The Sea, Baltasar Kormákur’s wacky version of King Lear, set in an Icelandic village where virtually everyone plays the fool. Thórdur (Gunnar Eyjólfsson), the aging founder of a fishing company, summons his three children home. The eldest son already does a bad job of running the family business; the daughter, a raging harpy, arrives with her wimpy husband and morose son from Reykjavík; while the youngest, a hapless musician (Hilmir Snær Gudnason), flies in reluctantly from Paris with his pregnant girlfriend (Hélène de Fougerolles).
The remembrance of pedophilia is not the punchline here, as it was in Thomas Vinterberg’s bitter pill, The Celebration. But that’s about the only carnal sin that Kormákur and Ólafur Haukur Símonarson have left out of their lusty script. This family boasts a curmudgeonly grandmother (the most charming of the film’s fierce females) who recalls a youth spent eating herring and farting. Kormákur is at his best with dark, raw humor. When he reaches for tragedy, his film feels predictable. (“Why were our clothes always homemade?” the youngest son reproaches his father, in a denouement that appears strangely whiny.) Personal woes are set against the broader calamity of globalization—fishing rights are being snapped up by conglomerates, and Coca-Cola has finally penetrated the Arctic Circle. But in Kormákur’s vision, the surreal contradictions of a land where pizza deliverymen cross paths with reindeer win out over simple nostalgia.