Sure, it can feel a little heavy-handed at times. For the state to bill a refugee for her legal defence is brutal, but we don’t really need her lawyer talking about fine wines on the phone to make the point. And Adja is almost too saintly, doing everything she can to help the woman who wrecked her life.
But these are minor gripes for a major film. There are many heart-rending scenes, such as the one where Lára, sleeping in her car next to the airport, tells her son she has never been to another country. There are the Gestapo tactics of dragging people from their beds in the middle of the night to deport them. And Adja’s attempts to escape are more gut-wrenching than most Icelandic action films have managed.
Mostly, the film is made in the best Nordic social realist tradition, with every scene serving a specific purpose. At times, it almost slips into docu-drama, with the human rights lawyer being played by an actual human rights lawyer, who also acts as legal council for the film.
The setting is refreshing. We don’t see cool 101 Reykjavik, nor do we get wide shots of natural beauty. Most scenes take place around the airport in Keflavík or at the cargo harbour. Iceland may be an island, but it is an island with borders, and not so welcoming to all as the ad campaigns might have you believe.
Most refreshing, though, is the focus on the downtrodden—both foreign and domestic—whom politics sometimes seems to put at odds, despite having more in common than is often acknowledged. The great film critic Roger Ebert said that movies are machines that generate empathy. By that criteria, this is as good as it gets.