Sctor Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson stars in Benedikt Erlingsson's film "Of Horses and Men." Photo Courtesy of: Silversalt PR.

Actor Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson stars in Benedikt Erlingsson’s film “Of Horses and Men.” Photo Courtesy of: Silversalt PR.

Of Horses and Men (Icelandic: Hross i oss) is a close observation of village life in Iceland, but it’s also much more than that. A portrait of people, animals and the dramas they share, it uses tragedy and comedy to explore the streak of nature found in all of us.

The film, Iceland’s entry for the 2014 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, marks the debut of a filmmaker who knows how to traverse the Nordic landscape — with a camera and a steed — while imbuing darkly bizarre scenes with a timeless, almost placeless mythology. Writer and director Benedikt Erlingsson, who also happens to be a stage actor and amateur horse wrangler, has found a distinct voice in a debut that offers unforgettable vignettes of human-horse interaction, tiny operas that make us laugh and wince at the same time.

Consider the striking courtship shown, quite boldly, in the film’s posters. A man riding his horse through the countryside is ambushed by a black stallion in heat. The stallion mounts its trembling legs onto the white mare, head and body resting on her back, inches from where the man sits. The horse begins to heave. The man can’t do anything but wait, embarrassingly, for the animal to finish. Here, the rider is no longer harnessing nature but caught intruding upon it. It is an inversion of power and powerlessness that questions whether the horse is just a form of transportation or something much, much more intimate to us.

Near the end of the film, this same man, played with dry wit by Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, has sex with the stallion’s owner, a callous and lonely fellow villager named Solveig (Charlotte Bøving). They’re at the bottom of a knoll, surrounded by horses, caught in an act of nature and impulse. It’s another unforgettable image that inverts the established animal-human relationship.

In-between these two scenes are several virtuosic close-up shots of coordinated galloping and trotting, some of which involve nearly a hundred horses. All the while, the film’s characters are engaged in tiny dramas of romance, feuds, funerals and brushes with death. A farmer’s daughter sets off to prove herself by wrangling five horses at once, using only a coil of rope. The process is meticulously shot — first she cordons the wild animals in a ring, then she tames the horses one by one before tying them leg-to-leg. Scenes also depict tremendous human suffering. A foreigner gets left in the cold while on a horse tour and is forced to take drastic measures to survive the night (it’s a terrifying image that, Erlingsson says, evokes both The Empire Strikes Back and the Bible). A drunken traveler, arriving at a fence in the countryside, decides to cut it down to allow his horses to pass through. The furious property owner rushes after him in a tractor, but soon hits a steep slope and tumbles to his death.

It is at this man’s funeral when Solveig decides to approach the mare-rider in the first scene. A trip down the mountain later and they’ve consummated a peculiar, yet peculiarly affecting owner-horse love quadrangle.

Of Horses and Men has earned Sigurðsson and Bøving prizes at the 2013 Amiens International Film Festival and garnered several international awards for Erlingsson, including best director at the 2013 Tokyo International Film Festival. Erlingsson took some time between screenings in New York City, at the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, to speak to GALO about his longtime horse companion, the symbolism within the film and his future plans as a filmmaker in Iceland.

GALO: Let me begin with your relationship with horses. You grew up in Reykjavik but started raising a horse when you were 16 while working on a horse farm in Iceland, a mare named Roshildur. Can you tell me more about Roshildur?

Benedikt Erlingsson: Well, I named Roshildur after my grandmother. Then I had my first daughter in 1999, and I named her Roshildur. This mare was like part of my family. She became 32-years-old and I had to put her down this winter. We made a big grave, and put the saddle and everything on her. She was buried in full uniform. It was a very personal and strange relationship. And it’s not unusual, the farmer’s relationship with his domestic animal, but, in a sense, it becomes very intimate.

GALO: How do you define the relationship between the person and his or her horse? Is it more than a tool for working on the farm and for traveling purposes?

BE: The horse, of course, works for you. To me, horsemanship is about traveling in the country, long distances, maybe 10 days straight. But the love and fascination of the horse is also because of its ability, character, speed, and its gait. You fall in love with the horse because it’s a good horse. It’s one of the fascinations — with its power, its quality — that creates this love affair.

The horses are part of your identity. If you have a good horse, you think you are good yourself. It builds up a status. It’s like a status instrument. I think people are doing this with cars: “See how beautiful and expensive my car is. I must also be beautiful and expensive.”

It’s not so expensive to have horses in Iceland. It’s a very common sport. It’s not like in other places in the world where you have to be an aristocrat to have horses. It’s more common, [and], in a way, that equals out social statuses. A poor man can have a good horse and a rich man can have a not so good horse.

GALO: When did you decide to make a movie about horses? You’ve worked for many years in theater, but did something happen that made you want to finally take the plunge?

BE: I decided in 2004, when my wife asked me to have another baby. I was a little bit hesitant. So she asked me, “What would you most regret not doing, if you look back after 10 or 20 years?” Of course, she was expecting my answer to be about having a baby, but I said, “Not to do my horse film.” After that, I became very focused on this film. In a way, it’s a basic urge. I come from theater and I’m very interested in horses, and your first film should be built on something you know, so in a way I had my feet on the ground — my home ground.

GALO: The riding scenes in this film are very impressive. I loved the close-up shots of the horses as well as the Western-style action riding scenes. The final scene, a horse auction, must have had hundreds of horses. How did you find and choose the horses to use in the film?

BE: It was the most difficult casting I had to do, to cast the right horses. I contacted lots of horse trainers. And together we started to look for the right type of horse, every characteristic. I had to have the right color. There are lots of good horses in Iceland, so in a way, it was not so hard. I spent much more time casting horses than casting actors.