Icelander is a documentary of Nils Oliveto’s search for his father, Joseph Oliveto, who disappeared when the two of them were on holiday in Rome in 1998. The first part of the film portrays Joseph’s disappearance as a complete mystery, but metered out over the next 80 minutes we learn that anyone who really knew Joseph should have been ready for something like it to happen.
It turns out Joseph was involved in the spy game in real life, probably the wet work side of it, and even Nils’ mother, she reveals, knew there were darker, unknown elements of her husband’s past. His home life was a cover, or at least not the whole story.
The film is amateurish and poorly executed, primarily shot on a phone, or similar small device. The story of Joseph Oliveto’s life and his son’s search for him is teased in reality-show style for a “big reveal” which feels sensationalist and tacky. Add to this the fact that Nils shows no interest in Iceland or her people, it becomes hard to feel the sympathy one should for his desire to find his father. Perhaps that he was searching frantically for his father should forgive his boorish behavior, but given that 18 years had elapsed since Joseph’s disappearance it hardly seems the search could be characterized as “urgent.”
He winds up in Reykjavik on a tip that Joseph has been seen there playing chess, which he was masterful at. We are shown Nils taking mysterious phone calls from mysterious people, neither of which is explained.
Again, this feels tacky and meant to contribute to the build-up around the story of Nils’ life with his father, piecing together a biography of Joseph before his disappearance. He also is shown pushing his mother to talk about events and information she’d meant to keep to herself, but he cajoles her to speak on camera. She capitulates under duress, manipulated by her son.
As we near the end of the film we see too much shaky POV of Nils running (literally) around Reykjavik under some poorly described threat from someone, and then the film ends where it should have begun.
“…Nils Oliveto’s search for his father, Joseph Oliveto, who disappeared when the two of them were on holiday in Rome in 1998.“
It must have been a terrible jolt to Nils at age 23 to have his father vanish. No one says they thought he’d died, and not everyone is surprised that he was gone. Perhaps Joseph may have become aware of a credible threat to his family and left to keep them safe. Pure speculation there: he might also have decided that 23 years of domesticity and family life was enough for a man accustomed to travel and dangerous international intrigue.
If footage that doesn’t contribute to the story was cut: of Nils on a plane, bus, car, walking, waiting, or speaking into the camera about the lack of leads or new information, the run time would drop to 30-45 minutes. That might not have been a bad idea.
It ends with more questions than answers, frustratingly so because it’s clear that Nils knows more than he’s telling. Sharing this experience honestly on film would have meant telling it completely, but Nils stops short, neither explaining what we see in the last moments, nor why he chose to end it so abruptly. The story is compelling but the filmmaker strings us along with boring video blog entries and ultimately lets us down when it comes to the exciting conclusion.
The film world premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival Sep 2nd, 2018.
Icelander (2016). Directed by Nils Oliveto. Starring Nils Oliveto.
5 out of 10