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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 65.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Prairie style
A German bride learns Minnesota ways in Sweet Land
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Sweet Land is about the long process of assimilation.
Sweet Land is about the long process of assimilation.

From our neighbors to the northwest comes Sweet Land, Ali Selim's well-crafted love story set in rural southern Minnesota right after World War I. Looking like a million bucks, Elizabeth Reaser plays Inge, a German mail-order bride who steps off the train with a song in her heart and a Victrola under her arm. But the song's in German, for Inge's command of English reaches no further than 'I could eat a horse.' And German wasn't a language you wanted to be caught speaking at that time, in that place. Making matters worse, Inge's husband-to-be, Olaf (Tim Guinee), is one of those Norwegian bachelor farmers that Garrison Keillor is always going on about ' shy to the point of rudeness. And the local protestant minister (John Heard), despite being reminded that Martin Luther himself was German, isn't inclined to join these two in holy matrimony. Can Inge stake a claim in this sweet, foreign land?

Based on a short story by Minnesota's Will Weaver, Sweet Land is about the long process of assimilation, Inge to her surroundings and Inge's surroundings to her. The surroundings ' a lovely, lonely farm house on a windswept prairie ' seem meant to evoke 'Christina's World,' Andrew Wyeth's portrait of rural isolation and pent-up desire. And Selim creates an entire exhibition of paintings, from cramped interiors to wide-open exteriors, with doors and windows linking the two. Days of Heaven comes to mind, but without that movie's heavy mythologizing. Selim simply wants to transport us to another time, when love, like that year's crop, took time to germinate, grow, harvest. And toward that end, he adds a pair of framing stories, one where Inge, now old, has just lost her husband, and one where Inge herself has just died. As the elder Inge, the great Lois Smith is so convincing it nearly breaks your heart.

But it's the love story itself that lifts Sweet Land into a higher realm, alongside Bridges of Madison County, where Meryl Streep made an Italian accent seem like one of the most exotic things in the world. To his credit, Selim (who adapted the script) keeps the language barrier in place throughout the movie. Inge learns a few more words and phrases, but it's not through words that she and Olaf reach each other. Reaser does a nice job with Inge's attempts to understand and make herself understood. And Guinee has his own accent to deal with. But if a picture's worth a thousand words, then a glance is worth that many more, and Selim lets the actors' faces handle the talking. I should mention Mark Orton's stripped-down score, which has just enough lilt and twang to put this thing over. From such sparse means comes fullness. Regional filmmaking at its best, Sweet Land is both beautiful and as plain as the dirt piled on Inge's casket.

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