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Sweet Land

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Down on the farm: Elizabeth Reaser and Alan Cumming
  • Down on the farm: Elizabeth Reaser and Alan Cumming

"Immigrant" has become a four-letter word in America. This disturbing trend -- and let's hope it's merely trendy, not a new paradigm -- seems to be happening because today's immigrants are browner than yesterday's. But even when our new citizens came from the white lands of the north, acceptance was still a challenge, sometimes even among themselves.

Ali Selim's Sweet Land tells one such tale in one such community just after World War I, although you don't have to read very deeply to feel its resonance today. Selim -- a native-born American, in case you were wondering -- doesn't try to resolve the debate about who's legal and who's not. His lovely movie simply reminds us that we all came from somewhere, and that our ancestors did it to better themselves.

His story revolves around Inge (Elizabeth Reaser), who arrives in rural Minnesota as a matrimonial gift to the taciturn farmer Olaf (Tim Guinee) from his parents in Norway. But they neglected to tell him that she's actually German, which the townsfolk can't forgive. There's fear in the good clean neo-American air that Germans are still enemies or spies, and Inge is immediately profiled from the pulpit by the local Lutheran minister (John Heard).

So Inga moves in with Frandsen (Alan Cumming), Olaf's affable best friend, who has his own farm, his own wife (Alex Kingston), and nine vigorous children he can't afford to support. As an unforgiving banker (Ned Beatty), once an immigrant himself, forecloses in on Frandsen's land, Inge moves into Olaf's house, and Olaf moves into his own barn.

Sweet Land opens with a time-tripping prologue that moves back and forth between the 1960s, when the aging Olaf dies, and perhaps 20 years later, when the aging Inge, portrayed by the gorgeous Lois Smith, joins him. Then it flashes back to tell a tale that feels just a wee bit tall at times, and with good reason: This is a film about memory, which is always a mix of what's actually true and what we earnestly believe to be true.

Doubting the little things that happen in Sweet Land would be like doubting your grandma at the dinner table, and Selim is such an intelligent storyteller that you believe him anyway. By the time Inge finds her place in America, Sweet Land has shown us snapshots of a time that seems at once historic and disturbingly like the evening news: Banks still own everything, and clergymen still sincerely believe they speak for God when they condemn people who don't embrace their code of conduct.

When the pastor condemns Inge and Olaf, assuming they've consummated their co-habitation (they have not), he's completely sincere and completely wrong -- even if he had been right. "You believe in God?" Inge asks Olaf when they get back home. "Something makes the crops come up," he answers. And then she teaches him a lesson that America still hasn't learned: "Yah. But not Church."

Starts Fri., Jan. 19

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