Driving Mum (2022) (Á Ferð með Mömmu)

Driving Mum by Icelandic director Hilmar Oddsson is darkly strange, absurd and poignant.

A back-seat driver

by Alexa Dalby

Driving Mum

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

An Icelandic black comedy shot in black and white? Rather, I would say Driving Mum is absurdist and poignant: Icelandic humour seems dark and slow like its long Arctic winter. And mystifyingly short on laughs. But the country’s vast volcanic wasteland and its blanket of low-lying cloud looks dramatically beautiful in Driving Mum.

Jon (Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson) is a lugubrious, unfulfilled middle-aged man who lives with his domineering mother (Kristbjörg Kjeld) on an isolated sheep farm on an island off the coast of Iceland. They have a very quiet life just the two of them – listening to cassettes of old radio shows and knitting Iceland’s traditional jumpers together, their balls of wool symbolically entwined.

When his mother dies, Jon tries gamely to fulfil her last wish to be buried near her family in her birthplace in the south. To do this, he has to leave his hermetic comfort zone. Thus begins his road trip across country with her dead body (amateurishly made up by him and in her best outfit), sitting up in the back seat of his rust bucket of a car, not in a coffin.

Along the way he meets German tourists in a VW, a farmer and his wife, drunken women in a hotel, a hitchhiker, a police officer, a bizarre street comedy troupe and a French tourist who fixes his car. He takes a diversion to track down an old love from long ago and makes an unsettling discovery.

He tells the truth to everyone he meets about his mother being dead in the back seat but no one believes him, thinking he is joking. In scenes of magical realism, as he drives slowly along (too slowly for other traffic) he argues with his dead mother, who speaks to him as if she is still alive and long-buried painful truths from the past emerge.

Hilmar Oddsson’s Driving Mum is a strange comedy but it slowly grows on you, just as Jon’s ‘rebirth’ occurs gradually in the course of the film. Though the title is reminiscent, it’s so, so different from Driving Miss Daisy or Driving Madeleine. Though Jon’s faithful dog Brezhnev deserves a Palm Dog award.

Driving Mum is released on 1 March 2024 in the UK.

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