When writer Isak Dinesen wanted to set Babette's Feast in the harshest, most godforsaken place she could imagine, she chose the Norwegian fishing village of Berlevag on the Barent Sea (the movie relocated the tale to Denmark's Jutland peninsula). Knut Erik Jensen's unhurried documentary is ostensibly about the Berlevag Male Choir, a group of 30 fishermen ranging in age from 29 to 95, who gather regularly to sing handsomely harmonized songs about God, the sea, Norway, trolls and, of course, love. But before the unblinking eye of Jensen's camera, the choristers gradually reveal themselves, talking about their wives and children (or, in the case of the older men, of being alone), fishing, politics (they're generally unsophisticated, but far from ignorant or closed-minded), cooking and nature.
Located in Finnmark, Norway's northernmost area, Berlevag is close to the North Pole: The winds are bone chilling, the water that breaks on their shores is bitterly cold and snow blankets the ground for much of the year. Berlevag's 1300 inhabitants are by nature hardy, uncomplaining and overall remarkably fit, even the oldest -- a couple bemoan their expanding bellies, and one playfully blames his wife for his double chin. And if they have the odd ache or pain, they obviously don't think it's worth mentioning. But Jensen reveals that there's more to them than mere stoicism. One cheerfully weathered fellow, who wears an incongruous earring, describes a youth spent high on hashish and amphetamines. Another recalls that his talent for math might have allowed him to study engineering, had it not been for a dyslexic condition. He became a fisherman instead, and swears he can't imagine a better life — this while he's up to his elbows in wriggling fish pulled from the icy waters. What plot there is concerns the choir's invitation to sing at a concert in the Russian city of Murmansk, and their bus journey there, through brutally ugly towns and countryside devastated by nuclear power plants. Though dismayed by the environmental damage, the choristers are almost giddy with delight at taking a trip, and at the prospect of flirting with Russian women. The film was well-received at international festivals and became a surprise hit in Norway (making unlikely celebrities of the Berlevag fishermen) before making its way to the U.S. (In Norwegian, with English subtitles.) leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh