Last year I had the privilege of going to a pre-screening of the film Málmhaus (‘Metalhead’) by Icelandic director Ragnar Bragason. I was already a fan of his previous movies and the Nightwatch/Daywatch/Prisonwatch TV-series, as well as being a fan of heavy metal, so I was excited to see his latest release.
The film centers on Hera, who as a young girl loses her brother, a heavy metal fan to whom she’d been close, to a tragic and fatal accident. We then encounter her as a young woman and metalhead, rebellious and alienated, seeking solace and outlet in the metal as well as somewhat adopting the metal as a connecting link to her dead brother. Eventually she also does some misguided things, which may seem an ultimate cry for help, along her way to reconciling with the past and finding a way to carry on.
Visually, the film looks beautiful, and it is excellently shot. The music is used effectively, particularly the heavy metal numbers, and evidently chosen by someone who has appreciation for the genre. It was also a nice touch to get Iceland’s first lady of metal, Edda Tegeder of Angist, to play Hera’s riffs. While the dramatic score by Pétur Ben was very good, I could perhaps have done with it being used slightly more subtly, as I certainly would have been able to find the emotional pang of the scenes anyway, though this may be a pet peeve.
Þorbjörg Helga Þorgilsdóttir stands out in the film for her excellent portrayal of Hera. Hera is given a multi-dimensional personality, elevating her far above any stereotype. The kind of mixture of strength and vulnerability, toughness and tenderness that Þorbörg brings to the role recently earned her a well-deserved Edda award (the Icelandic equivalent of the Oscars) as that year’s best leading actress. We may not always approve of Hera’s actions or condone them, but it is nevertheless easy to sympathise with her. All in all, she becomes utterly human.
I also found Ingvar E. Sigurðsson and Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir good and believable as Hera’s parents, well-meaning people who have unfortunately attempted to deal with the bereavement through being silent about it. And this is at the core of the film and where the characters' troubles spring from, as I see it: Bereavement and communication breakdown. Rather than heavy metal being in itself a negative and corruptive influence, which would have brought the film to a Tipper Gore/PMC territory, it is this silence within the family regarding the tragic loss of the young man’s life that has been most devastating for their well-being and relationship, resulting in repressed grief and frustration, making their family life all the more unbearable. Indeed, we learn that the family never got any real therapy, despite goodwill from their neighbours, and the trauma still looms strong.
Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson gives a good performance as the nice and surprisingly cool young pastor, who befriends Hera and wants to help her, and Hannes Óli Ágústsson is excellent as Hera’s rather goofy but sympathetic friend/love interest Knútur, offering a much appreciated comic relief to a film, which, by its very subject matter, can become quite dramatic and tragic. There is indeed humor in the film, which as a result shines all the more, such as when Hera is playing heavy metal for the cows or when Knútur confesses that he never liked Dio (“’Holy Diver’! What the hell does that even mean?!”) or the meeting with the Norwegian metalheads.
All in all, the film gives a good understanding of grief and bereavement, that the past may never completely go away, but it is a matter of finding ways to reconcile it with the present and the future and to be able to thus continue your life. Thus, for Hera, it does not become a matter of throwing out the past and saying goodbye to metal, rather it is a matter of her being able to work out and reconcile these various elements that have affected her life and to be able to establish her own voice and identity. Just like all human beings are somewhat affected by external factors but need from those and from internal factors to create something for themselves. It is this understanding that gives the film its main strength, in my opinion. I was very happy with it and recommend you check it out on DVD as soon as you can.