Sweet Land is a sweet, charming, quiet piece about a young woman (Inge Altenberg, played by Elizabeth Reaser) who emigrates to the U.S. in 1920 to marry a Norwegian farmer in Minnesota, Olaf Torvik (played by Tom Guinee). However, troubles arise, and the marriage doesn’t happen. First a local minister (Paul Heard) refuses to marry the couple, saying she’s an alien from Germany, a country the U.S. just fought a war with. Then the county Justice of the Peace refuses to marry them, insisting that Inge needs documents and papers from her home country to prove she’s not a dangerous seditious agitator.
Olaf’s friend Frandsen (Alan Cummings) and his wife take her in, and she slowly learns English as she lives with the couple and their many children. Cummings shines in this small role; we really like the playful, charming character he creates.
This film has a lyrical soundtrack, gentle and lovely, that meshes with the quiet images and the slow development of the plot. Violin and piano provide perfect accompaniment for the images on the screen. This movie doesn’t rush anything, nor do the young couple forbidden to marry. Guinee imbues his character with dignity and strength. Reaser is engaging as Inge, challenged to overcome one obstacle after another.
Though set in Minnesota, the film could just as easily have been set anywhere in the Midwest. The sky presents an endless vista from horizon to horizon, and the farm is always in need of attention. Though we see tractors and even a steam-powered threshing machine, much of the farm work is done by hand. (At that, not everyone can afford a thresher.)
An opportunistic banker, played with cheerful gusto by Ned Beatty, intrudes. He informs Olaf’s friend Frandsen that he’s foreclosing on his mortgage. Frandsen and his wife and many kids will be forced from their home, and their farm and property will be sold at auction. Some slick city fellows show up at the auction, intent on grabbing a bargain.
This scene reminds us that bankers and farmers have had an uneasy relationship going back generations; farmers need capital to do their farming, but bankers need regular payments, or else. Olaf says to the banker after a telling moment in the film, “Banking and farming don’t mix.”
This is a satisfying movie, engaging but easy-going, of a young couple coming to know and love each other amidst a beautiful unbounded sky and the verdant land. They must find ways to overcome the mistrust of their fellow farmers and of the local minister. Inge begins to earn her place in America by her actions, not her words, ending in a scene of great beauty in which all that is important is suggested, not shown.
This is Ali Selim’s first time as a director; he also produced and wrote the film, based on a short story by Will Weaver. The movie is a beautiful achievement; we can expect great things from Selim going forward.