If you’ve ever been to one of those impressive, yet somehow depressing Bingo parlors on an American Indian Reservation, you get a sense of what havoc the Native Americans’ inevitable and Anglo-motivated, “modernization” wreaked upon their original way of life. Transplant that uncomfortable cultural collision to the indigenous peoples and frozen tundra of Greenland and substitute the Danes for Americans, and you’ve got the background for Jacob Gronlykke’s moving mystical drama “Heart of Light.”
Rasmus Lynge’s father, after a bitter and divisive debate, opened up Greenland to the Danes. Two generations later, knowledge of the old ways, such as seal hunting and dog-sledding, are nearly gone, swallowed up by the inexorable consequences of modernization. Rasmus (Rasmus Lyberth), though a good-hearted man, is also a bit of a laughingstock. Desperately waging a losing battle to preserve the old traditions and knowledge of his people, Rasmus is also an alcoholic and a source of considerable embarrassment to his younger, pro-modernization son Simon (Kenneth Rasmussen). Rasmus’ elder son Niisi (Knud Petersen), on the other hand, is the family peacemaker who more closely takes after his father and wearily defends his alcohol-induced indiscretions. When one of Rasmus’ drunken outbursts at Simon’s birthday party indirectly leads to a family tragedy, the bereaved and guilt-ridden family patriarch embarks on what can only be described as an obtuse “Vision Quest” into the stark and frigid Greenland outback.
During his journey, he encounters a mischievous and mysterious hermit; a mangy “Qivittoq” (Anda Kristiansen) who guides Rasmus on his magic-imbued quest for self-discovery not unlike one of Scrooge’s Christmas ghosts. “Heart of Light” is a difficult film to get a handle on at first. The language/sub-title distraction is initially somewhat jarring and the environment is almost completely alien. After all, when was the last film you saw that was set in Greenland? But once Rasmus sets off on his voyage, and particularly after the first dash of the supernatural nudges the film from TV movie into something deeper, it evolves into an enchanting, thought provoking, and universally identifiable film.
Beautiful to watch, even within the confines of a television screen, “Heart of Light” is ultimately a film about reconciliation and coming to terms with past deeds, right or wrong; universal themes as appropriate in the American Southwest as they are in the chilly depths of Greenland.