(The 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) runs September 7-17 and HtN has tons of coverage coming your way! Check out Chris Reed’s movie review of Songs of Earth. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)
Norwegian director Margreth Olin’s deeply personal cinematic essay, Songs of Earth, showcases the magnificent northern landscapes in which her parents have always lived. “Our first love was nature,” reads an opening title card. Given the enduring romance between her father and mother, that is perhaps not entirely true, but it speaks to the awe that the Oldedalen Valley, within the Nordfjord area (400km+ to the northeast of Oslo), can inspire in all who view it. It’s still breathtaking when seen vicariously through a digital-cinema camera; imagine what it must be like in person!
Olin’s dad, Jørgen, is our principal guide, though her mom, Magnhild, is frequently by his side. He’s a spry 84 years old; she is 9 years younger. Punctuating Jørgen’s walks through the mountains are conversations between the spouses—daughter sometimes included—that cover a range of metaphysical topics, including abiding love for those no longer among us and what to do about and after death. Beyond the discussions, they also sing and recite poetry, much of it used as voiceover. We also learn a good deal about the region, itself.
Olin (Childhood) divides the documentary into sections by season, bookended by a prologue and epilogue. Her exceptional team of cinematographers, led by Director of Photography Lars Erlend Tubaas Øymo, capture the splendors before them, irrespective of time of year, with stunning attention to detail. Whether it’s calving glaciers or various forms of flora and fauna, the inserts and cutaways are worthy of a Terrence Malick film, if not even more so. At every turn, with every frame, there is nothing but exquisite beauty.
There is also plenty of archival footage, images played while Jørgen narrates stories from his and the community’s past. As gorgeous as the scenery may be, it’s also dangerous, as the history of floods and avalanches indicates. We see trees and old structures drowned underwater, now just a part of the valley’s texture. Nature can be unforgiving.
Halfway up one of the surrounding peaks is a spruce tree that was planted by Jørgen’s grandfather, who died young, when Jørgen’s father was 9. It’s a reminder of the family’s roots, and Jørgen is a tender caretaker, also using the tree to display lights at Christmas. At the end of the movie, he plants his own sapling, in the hopes that it may one day stand as a testament to his time on Earth. “Our first love was nature. Let’s not forget our first love.” That’s the final title card, wrapping up this intense journey through the Nordfjord. How can we forget? It’s nothing short of majestic.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)
2023 Toronto International Film Festival ; Margreth Olin;Songs of Earth documentary movie review