The unhappy family in Baltasar Kormákur’s bleakly comic drama The Sea is unhappy in its own Icelandic way: Fish control the destiny of its members, and everyone stinks of discontent. The old man who owns the biggest fishing enterprise in town has summoned his three adult children to discuss the future of the business – a grim forecast, as large corporate fisheries grab more of the revenue – and each bitter beneficiary arrives lugging a lifetime of resentment as a house gift. The kids want their father, Thórdur (Gunnar Eyjólfsson), to sell out, divide the profits, and retire to Reykjavík; Thórdur, raging like King Lear raised on herring, values loyalty to his workers and other traditional virtues, but in his stubbornness, refuses to accept his country’s changed economy, or his own family’s misery.
The premise of an anti-Walton clan choking on secrets is similar to that of ”The Celebration,” Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 Danish Dogma drama about seething siblings. But Kormákur and screenwriter Ólafur Haukur Símonarson, who adapted the script from his play, are interested in staging something more than a group meltdown among amusingly irritable kin. In his rollicking feature debut, ”101 Reykjavík,” Kormákur kept sociological tabs on disaffected Icelandic twentysomethings; in ”The Sea,” he makes sure viewers are aware of the effects of capitalism, modernization, and cultural homogenization, at least on one little patch of Iceland where elk roam the streets but kids order pizzas and prefer playing videogames to admiring the briny majesty of the damn sea.
The liveliest scenes, meanwhile, have less to do with social commentary than with the antics of old-fashioned, eccentric characters – among them a granny who smokes and swears, a hangdog oldest son who’s browbeaten by his greedy, slutty wife, and a lecherous local cop. And the loveliest moments put both politics and theatrics aside, conveying the strange beauty of a hard life involving little else than fish, water, and gray sky.