A Beautiful, Overly Long Look At A Norwegian Life [TIFF]

Sep 19, 2023

As majestic in appearance as a “National Geographic” special or any episode of “NOVA,” the opening shots of the semi-documentary “Songs of Earth” are quick to immediately showcase beautiful cinematography that’s as much a character as any of the several humans who materialize from time to time, both elements of the film that do their best to drive things forward and attempt to keep the onscreen action from slipping into a black hole of dull. Set in Norway and focusing on the aging father of director Margreth Olin, the project does what it can to present the story of her father Jørgen’s life, from his idyllic childhood spent in the same valley he still inhabits alongside his devoted wife of 55 years and everything in between.
There’s no shortage of memories, gorgeous looks at imposing mountains and frigid bodies of water, and a surprisingly ominous score underneath, yet in Olin’s quest to draw parallels between the natural environments she’s captured with her camera and her father’s life is it all ultimately rendered just another clone of similar efforts that also do their best to bring together nature and humanity, from “Meru” to” Koyaanisqatsi.”
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That’s not to say it isn’t at least somewhat compelling. Moving through time alongside the film through a year’s worth of seasons, Jørgen narrates the movie with all the heart of a man looking back fondly as he recalls the highs and lows of what brought him to the present; for every story about family members who met their heartbreaking end at the hands of a mountain slide or similarly tragic means, there’s a touching scene in which, for example, his wife Magnhild, holding back tears, hopes out loud of her wish to die first, as life without her husband, “would be unbearable.” There’s genuine love between the two, heard in many ways, such as through the traditional Nordic tunes the couple sings to one another periodically or when they gaze out the window of their home as they overlook the valley and chuckle.
At the same time, they muse upon their still-sharp minds in contrast to their aged bodies. Comparisons between Jørgen’s life and the changes he’s witnessed in the land he loves find their way into the spotlight more than once; a definite reference to our changing global climate can be seen as he reacts in disbelief over a receding glacier that once covered a vast span of land and now barely seems to exist at all. His hands, now spotted with the ravages of time, and shots of him lightly struggling his way up various mountain hikes all work to show how connected he remains to his slice of the world and how anywhere else simply would not seem like home.
All of this makes the end result something that could be considered unfortunate. Putting comparisons to other films aside, all the beauty of what we’re witnessing onscreen or autobiographical voiceover do little to prevent “Songs of Earth” from becoming a slog of a watch, overflowing with the undeniable feeling that this would’ve made a much better, more effective film with approximately an hour of footage removed. It remains a loving portrait of Olin’s father, and the ethereal score somehow works from a Hans Zimmer-lite perspective in perfect compliment to what we’re witnessing even when, at times, it honestly sounds eerie, almost unnerving. In many ways, this truly is less a film as it is a piece of art, which is, in all likelihood, the intention. The rinse-and-repeat method of showing a stunning panorama followed by Jørgen’s commentary throughout is the equivalent of a live-action slideshow, which, when coupled with the 90-minute runtime, is a failing that prevents from being anything more than what it is. 
“Songs of Earth,” sadly, is unmemorable; no one can deny Olin’s talent or how her father equips every phrase as if the words themselves were smiling, or the desire to visit Norway that’s impossible to ignore with every shot of a vista or frozen lake. Is this a movie for everyone, those at the center of Olin’s film, or a third subset that can personally relate to the stories and scenery? It’s hard to say, but what is certain is that there’s at least something here everyone should find appealing, even if the film that houses these special moments isn’t quite there. [C+]
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