The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #11 September / October 2014
At the Cinema
by Miranda Metheny
September / October 2014 | 

Ludo is the first feature film to come out of the Faroe Islands in fifteen years – and it's a dark one. It was written and directed by Katrin Ottarsdóttir, who is also behind the road-trip movie Bye Bye Bluebird (1999) and the slice-of-life relay Atlantic Rhapsody (1989), as well as several shorter movies and documentaries.

Ludo takes us into the home of a small family living in a beautiful house by the sea. A woman struggles with mental illness, her husband wonders how to handle the difficult and escalating situation, and their eleven-year-old daughter sings herself to sleep at night over the sounds of her mother's wailing.

The movie opens with a rare and beautiful summer day promising to let a little fresh air into the gloomy house. Father and daughter conspire to get the mother in a good mood, bringing her breakfast in bed to try to persuade her to go out with them on a walk in the hills. At first, she readily agrees, even chastising them for thinking they needed to do so much to convince her. But she soon changes her mind without cause, telling them icily to go on without her.

The game they play in the dark house is one none of them can win.

The young girl hesitates. She knows her mother, and its clear to everyone that the mother doesn't mean what she says. But her father begs, unwilling to let the fine weather slip away, and finally they go on out for a pleasant hike that will upset mother far more than they know.

The movie is heavy with symbolism. We see toys scattered throughout the house (including an eerie doll whose eyes open and close on their own), birds (mostly ravens crying and a dead chick the girl finds on the mountain), waves, knives, blood, the child's voice singing her own lullaby... As the movie continues, the shots of these symbols come faster and more frequently, repeating themselves in a way that makes us feel disoriented and trapped in a cycle. The director's purpose, I feel, is to make viewers not sympathize but empathize with the situation. The scary music and the mother's moans are unpleasant on multiple levels, and the knife sounds were sometimes so sharp that I felt they were coming through my speakers and cutting my skin.

The father and daughter, trying to remain cheerful

Throughout the movie, we find ourselves perched uneasily between the mother's hallucination-fueled anxiety and her husband and daughter's attempts to say and do just the right things to keep her happy. But sometimes it seems impossible, as when the father asks the girl to lie so as not to unnecessarily upset the mother, but the mother seems to see right through it and ominously warns her about what happens to "little girls who lie to their mothers."

Three times, we see the mother try to turn over a new leaf. She initially agrees to go for a walk. She sings and makes a batch of pancakes on their return. Finally, she eagerly suggests a family game of Ludo. But the game they play in the dark house is one none of them can win.

Ottarsdóttir writes that the topics of the movie have also appeared in her other work, but in Ludo she wanted to go all the way with them. She stresses that mental illness is a problem that is urgent for everyone, no matter where in the world they are. Certainly it is true that mental illness is a worldwide concern and that the movie could be appreciated by an international audience, even without any other knowledge of the setting in the Faroe Islands. With a short 70-minute runtime, the director is quite busy with her artistic and thematic goals, and exploring Faroese culture is not one of them. There is, in fact, a noticeable lack of proper nouns in the film; neither the places, nor the characters, are named – giving it a certain sense of anonymity.

The mother, warning the daughter about lying

But the movie is set in the Faroe Islands, and setting is more than a backdrop. The movie and the story it tells would be slightly different in another place. The family lives on the island of Sandoy, which is one of the more remote of the Faroese islands as it is not connected by road to the others. While the father and daughter are out walking, they happen to run into the local doctor and his wife, who know them well and inquire after their family. The mother later watches the couple walk past her window, gossiping and staring, and is convinced that everyone in the village is talking about her. Of course, gossip, anxiety about gossip, and the coincidence of happening upon people you know on a hike happen everywhere, but certainly more frequently in a small island village like Sandur than in a large city. The Faroese are quick to say that, for better or for worse, everyone there knows everyone else's business.

While I was in the Faroes, more than one person told me life could be difficult there for people with any sort of psychiatric disorder due to the scarcity of specialized treatment in a remote and small society. In an odd coincidence, I also saw a striking similarity between the family in Ludo and the one readers meet in the first part of Lognbrá, by Heðin Brú – a famous Faroese novelist and Ottarsdóttir's grandfather. Both works explore the world of a young child caught between a mother's depressive instability and a kind but meek father.

In a small community, the family gains even more importance as the basic building block of society. There are fewer distractions from the crucial and complex interpersonal relationships of the home. "Coziness" is often cited as a fundamental aspect of Scandinavian culture, when everyone celebrates togetherness and the glowing warmth of being inside together despite darkness and bad weather just beyond the door. But what happens when you find yourself shut in with mental illness? As night falls on the house and a storm rises on the sea, Ludo's small family gathers around a board game in what feels like a corruption of the very concept of coziness.

The family, playing a game of Ludo

"The Faroe Islands can be quite eerie, can't they?" commented my friend who watched the movie with me, "In your pictures, they look so beautiful, but I think they would also be a great setting for a horror film. You could really play with the feeling of being trapped."

I think Ottarsdóttir already has.

Language learners will be happy to know that the movie takes place entirely in Faroese. The cinematography and quality of the acting are impressive, especially considering the constraints placed on the production by the tight budget and small pool of Faroese actors. It's well worth a watch for those interested in the topic, artistic films, or Faroese cinema.

At The Cinema - Ludo
Writer: Miranda Metheny
• "Ludo" Internet Movie Database <>
All images are copyright Blue Bird Film

Miranda Metheny retains all copyright control over her images. They are used in Parrot Time with her expressed permission.

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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