Screens at CIFF: 10/18 & 10/19
World premiere: 28 August, 2013, general release in Iceland

From its 2013 release in its native Iceland all the way to its present international festival run, the pitch for writer-director Benedikt Erlingsson's terrific debut feature Of Horses and Men (the original Iclandic title, which is universes better in its tongue-warming poetry, is Hross í oss) has focused with pitbull-like intensity on one single moment in the film: come for the horses fucking, stay for the horses fucking. And, more to the point, horses fucking while one of them is being ridden by a human who looks positively dismal at realising that he has just gotten wrapped up in the worst three-way ever.

The reasons for focusing on that scene, from a marketing standpoint, are beyond obvious, but it does the film a great disservice to reduce it to its most prurient elements. If, indeed, it's accurate to refer to horse-fucking as "prurient". Beyond its obvious surface elements - including not just equine sexuality, but an ironic relationship to sudden, violent human death, and the kind of dry, warped absurdist comedy that Scandinavian cinema delights in so very much - it's got some surprising tenderness and respect for the physical and emotional delicacy of horse and human alike. Even when that tenderness is expressed in bent moments like a man's insensate jealousy that his prize mare would screw a stallion, or a horse quietly standing over its owner after he's puked himself to death on bootleg hooch.

It's a kind of anthology film, though made entirely by one filmmaker and with a lot more bleeding through of its segments than "anthology film" suggests. The setting is a rural valley in Iceland where all of the gossipy, voyeuristic townsfolk are united in their affection for and reliance on horses (indeed, outside of the purchase of that alcohol the only economic activity we ever see centers on the care, handling, training, and renting of horses), and over the course of the film, we get to meet many of the people in this valley, spread over the course of six short segments (the total running time is around 80 minutes) which introduce us to six individuals in particular. There's master rider Kolbeinn (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), who's so miserably caught in the middle of that iconic sex act; Vernhardur (Steinn Ármann Magnússon), who rides his horse out into the ocean to catch up with the boat where his precious booze awaits; Grimur (Kjartan Ragnarsson), furiously ripping down fences throughout the region until tragedy strikes, and then that tragedy is compounded; Johanna (Sigríður María Egilsdóttir) doggedly working to tame her new mare; Juan (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada), an Spanish tourist whose poor equestrian skills lead him stranded in the middle of nowhere during a snowstorm; and bringing it back home, there's Solveig (Charlotte Bøving), the owner of the stallion that despoiled the honor of that mare in the first place, doing her best to find some kind of human connection in amongst all the horse obsession and caricatured weirdness of the people.

It would be entirely possible to ding the film for being slight: even with as much interconnectivity as the segments have, this is still essentially six short films with a couple of interstitials tying them together, and most of them are structured like jokes, though the punchline is disturbing or tragic as often as it's funny (by which I mean, it's almost always disturbing or tragic, but usually in a blackly comic way). The result is a film that lingers in the mind more as a collection of individual moments than as a single flowing conception of people occupying a space. Those moments are frequently ingenious: among other terrifically-constructed incidents, the film possesses the most quietly mournful scene of horse castration that you have ever seen in a movie. I am absolutely willing to guarantee that.

The film balances a grandiose, almost spiritual bleakness with snitty comedy, and fable-like tales of human cruelty with precise little cameos of singular human lives at their most beautiful. It's a marvelous balancing act that Erlingsson carries out, flying between tones and letting a small amount of information stand in for a great deal of storytelling and character building. The films works by implication rather than exposition, letting the character's behavior stand by itself, with every carefully-chosen shot and even moreso, the smart, frequently less-than-obvious editing by David Alexander Corno, which links moments using a logic that has little to do with explicitly clarifying the story, but instead allows the quirky humor to flourish and draws connections between characters' feelings and perceptions. It is, in fact, a scheme of assembling the movie that treats the humans much the same way as it treats its horses: as figures that need to be described and studied from sideways angles. And that, more than anything, makes this exactly the film the title promises: a study of how humans and animals interact with each other, and not simply a movie about what people think about horses. It's clever, wonderfully complex in ways it doesn't appear at first, and beautifully picturesque on top of it. The film is small and fussily exact, but then again, gems always are.