It’s uncommon for debut features to have the solid confidence and sure craft of Sámi-Swedish writer/director Amanda Kernell’s “Sámi Blood.” She has created a compelling drama about Scandinavian racism, history, betrayal and endurance, told partly in bookended moments. The film opens and closes in the haunted present but mainly lives amid the painful past.
Kernell carries us through the memories of a contemporary elderly Swedish woman back to the discrimination and violence she experienced in the 1930s. She is proud, willful and painfully isolated, not a heroine precisely, but a formidable survivor against the odds. It’s not a social issues film so much as an electrifying personal story, less political than human.
We meet aged Swedish-speaking Christina (Maj Doris Rimpi) at the funeral of her sister, many years after they stopped seeing each other. It is a traditional ceremony of the indigenous Sámi community, a gathering where Christina feels uncomfortably separate. Recollections draw her back eight decades to her days as a teenager, when she went by the name Elle-Marja (Lene Cecilia Sparrok, a prodigiously talented newcomer) and was close to her younger sister, Njenna (Lene Cecilia’s sister Mia Sparrok, equally gifted).
They live in a rural settlement deep in the gorgeous beauty and harsh arctic challenges of the natural world. “My dad is dead. My mom has reindeer,” she recalls. Her life is not brutal yet not without its wounds. She is expected to take over the herd, but she has other intentions. She would like some of the reindeer to be sold to fund her attendance at the distant Swedish-language boarding school she attends.
Her people live as a minority whose historic land has been colonized by a dominant Swedish culture that considers them racially inferior. One of her duties is to puncture and tag the ear of her family’s reindeer. Her own ear is knife-scarred just outside the school in a fight with a blond boy who considers “the filthy Lapps” mentally mediocre subhumans.
That’s the attitude of mainstream Swedish society, where abuse is more subtle but no less hurtful. When the school is visited by a pseudo-scientist, Elle-Marja’s skull is gauged with phrenology calipers to record her physiological inferiority. When she asks whether her outstanding test scores qualify her for the university, her coolly tactful teacher (Hanna Alström) explains “studies have shown” that Elle-Marja’s “people can’t get by in town” because their brains “don’t have what it takes.”
What her mind does have is a rising tide of anger. Lene Cecilia Sparrok is completely credible and powerfully moving as a brazen, intelligent young woman determined to have her way against two worlds that firmly oppose her. If Elle-Marja becomes Christina, who is she finally? Equally defiant, conniving and vulnerable, she sets out to decide by herself.
There’s a great deal of native color in Kernell’s film, from antique Swedish schools and Uppsala mansions to Lapp costumes and the joik song tradition. Still, this is no sightseeing tour. Psychologically deep and emotionally vivid, it’s a complex trip through personal and national history.
★★★½ out of 4 stars
Unrated: Brief violence and nudity. In subtitled Swedish and Sámi.
Theater: St. Anthony Main.