A lofty green mountainside, veiled under thick fog, dwarfs a 16-year-old boy’s lanky frame, while grey skies frame the melancholic mood. This spectacular landscape plays a significant role in critically acclaimed Icelandic filmmaker Rúnar Rúnarsson’s second feature, Sparrows.

After gaining a swag of accolades and awards at international film festivals in Prague, Chicago, San Sebastián and São Paolo, Sparrows will screen in Australia as part of the Scandinavian Film Festival, kicking off around the country next month. Festival director Elysia Zeccola Hill says the film depicts the often “brutal and unforgiving” journey to adulthood.

“The scenery is jaw-droppingly unique but the themes are universal,” she says. “I read that the director chose the title Sparrows to represent the fragility of the main characters, and that sparrows represent innocence and transition.”

The film is set against Iceland’s majestic and often imposing Westfjords, in a small town full of close-minded inhabitants.

After his mother decides to move from Reykjavik to Africa with her new partner, taciturn teen Ari (Atli Óskar Fjalarsson) is sent to live with his alcoholic father in a remote fishing village in Iceland’s north-west. While already navigating the confusion and loneliness of adolescence, Ari seeks a sense of belonging in this unfamiliar and harsh place, where notions of masculinity manifest in hunting, violence and misogyny.

“Ari is thrown into his new life surrounded by a range of negative male influences from a drunken father to the local bully, and he is trying to navigate through this to find his own path,” Zeccola Hill says. “It’s a powerful story masterfully told.”

Sophia Olsson’s cinematography is bolstered by a delicate score from Sigur Rós keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson, which elevates the tension in an otherwise restrained film. The performances are subtle, with stand-out Fjalarsson able to evoke pain, confusion and anger in a single glance or teenage mumble.

Ari’s coming-of-age journey may seem conventional at first – a fraught father–son relationship, a foray into first love, and the search for social acceptance – but deeper reflections on manhood, loss of innocence and a traumatic event in the final act shine a light on humanity’s darkest moments. Quite literally.

In a town where the summer sun shines at all hours, moments usually hidden by darkness are exposed. “[It’s a] stark juxtaposition of the bright Nordic 24/7 daylight and seemingly idyllic scenery in the film, against the seedy things going on behind closed doors,” Zeccola Hill says.

The rugged mountains, low-hanging clouds and the constant presence of daylight provide an unsettling backdrop to townsfolk’s actions.

“Iceland is such a far-flung exotic location, so different to my own world it may as well be another planet,” Zeccola Hill says. “In the three years I have been curating this festival I have noticed that the environment is always a very strong theme, such as in The Mine and The Idealist, screening this year, and landscapes and settings can often be as important as the characters in the film.

“Several [festival] films are set in isolated areas or very small towns where everyone knows everyone’s business, and so feeling detached from the rest of the world is a common theme. City versus country, a fear of change or immigration is another recurring theme – the [festival’s] topical opening-night selection, Welcome to Norway, and the doco Nice People are based on this theme.”

Zeccola Hill thinks Iceland punches well above its cinematic weight. “Iceland has the smallest population of all the Nordic countries but still manages to make at least one excellent film a year,” she says. “Last year Rams, which we premiered at the festival, was my favourite film of the year and won accolades around the world.

“Bigger countries like Sweden and Denmark have much more prolific film industries and are making more films each year with a growing local market share. They export a lot of popular TV series too. Denmark is known for its gritty crime dramas but in this year’s festival the Danish films are very varied in genre, from the black comedy Comeback to the absorbing epic Gold Coast, starring our festival guest Jakob Oftebro.”

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