Film Review: Gavagai

Original and delicate film about love and grief told within the framework of a road trip featuring two strangers traveling through a stunning yet bleak Norwegian setting.
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Gavagai is a curiosity and nonetheless remarkable in its own way. Slow (very slow) paced, it’s a meditative, haunting and lyrical film that explores the many layers of love and grief. The title, an ambiguous concept and open to interpretation, references, according to several sources, the effort to translate a word into a foreign language. It has literal and metaphorical meaning throughout.

Directed by independent (and not widely known) American filmmaker Rob Tregenza, the movie is set in Norway and tells the story of an unnamed German widower (Andreas Lust) who travels to Norway to scatter the ashes of his late wife, a Chinese writer. At the time of her death, she and her husband, also a writer, were collaborating on the translation of real-life Norwegian Tarjei Vesaas’ (1897-1970) poetry into Chinese. Vinje, a strikingly scenic municipality in Telemark and Vesaas’ home, is our hero’s destination and where he plans to dispose of his wife’s remains.

Needing transportation, he hires a local resident (Mikkel Gaup), who ekes out a living conducting elk safari tours, to drive him, a journey that takes several days, entailing a night at an inn and a ferry ride. Along the way, our driver stops to see an estranged girlfriend (Anni-Kristiina Juuso) with whom he tries to re-establish a relationship, but when she tells him she is pregnant with his child, he is not thrilled. At the same time, our German visitor is experiencing spectral visitations from his late wife (also and unaccountably played by Juuso, made up to look Asian).

Throughout the trek, the driver attempts to connect with his passenger, who is distracted and non-communicative. Later, a bond of sorts evolves between the two men, a study in temperamental contrasts but each in the throes of a love story, one with the potential for a happy outcome, the other futureless.

The turning point occurs towards the end of the film, when our protagonists crack up in the wake of a trivial car mishap. The almost excessive camaraderie and good humor is psychologically spot-on, taking place (as it does) after the ashes have been disposed of. The laughter evokes the profoundest relief and release one may feel following a burial.

Written by the director with Kirk Kjeldsen, the film employs a voiceover to quote from Vesaas’ poems throughout. Arguably the film is thematically structured around a handful of poems dealing with such topics as love, death and grief.

The dialogue—much of it in English, as it’s the duo’s shared language—is sparse. When Norwegian is spoken, subtitles are usually (but not consistently) onscreen. No subtitles are provided when the language is German or Chinese. Obviously, the director is trying to suggest something with these omissions, not to mention casting Juuso to play two parts, one in what’s equivalent to Chinese “blackface.” Its purpose can only be guessed at. Similarly, I fail to understand what’s gained when characters remain nameless, though interestingly enough the production notes list the characters’ names, neither of which is cited in the movie.

Despite those quibbles, Gavagai is one of the most delicate and original movies I’ve seen. The Norwegian scenery—mountainous, lush, desolate—is extraordinary and Tregenza’s cinematography captures it. (He also serves as the film’s editor.) The natural world is almost mystical and takes on the quality of a character, especially in the rainy scenes that mirror the characters’ shed and unshed tears—admittedly a cliché, but visually evocative and emotionally stirring nonetheless.

And this is one of the rare films where the music is gentle and nuanced, at no point intrusive. The score is composed by Tregenza’s daughter Earecka Tregenza and her husband Jason Moody,musicians with the Spokane and Seattle Symphonies, who wrote the accompaniment after viewing the final cut.

Gavagai is not an easy film to watch—its relentless sadness can feel oppressive, but in the end it is oddly life-affirming and well worth the viewing.