Food: My best friend and I decided to meet in the middle (she’s in Boerem Hill & I in East Village) at a spot in the Financial District called Felice – an upscale, but cozy Italian restaurant. We split the Burrata e Barbabietola, which came with burrata, roasted golden beets, oven baked cherry tomatoes, and sunflower seeds. The combination of the roasted golden beets and burrata was so refreshing and light, the ideal appetizer. Next, we split the La Carbonara (chitarra spaghetti, smoked pancetta, egg, 24-month aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, and freshly ground black pepper) which they served already divided in half for us, portioned out. It was flavorful and perfectly filling. We shared a bottle of the friuli white wine, Ribolla Gialla, Girolamo Dorigo 2014. It was sweet, zingy and tasted a bit like a sauvignon blanc – which paired nicely with the classic dishes. We finished off with the Tiramisù… made by traditional grandma’s recipe and topped with cocoa powder. The whole meal was incredible. I am already excited to return for more!
Film: “Midsommar” (2019) was a highly talked about film this year, described by the director (Ari Aster) as an “operatic break up movie.” That is one way to view it. Taking place in an isolated field in the middle of Sweden, a group of Americans visit a pagan cult during their fabled midsummer festival, and as things become increasingly violent and strange, the film quickly turns from a dramedy to a horror over the course of its 2 hour and 18 minute run-time.
After a bit of research into what Swedish cult practices were the inspiration behind “Hårga,” it is a mixture of true religious tradition and some is purely creation by the filmmakers. Director, Ari Aster, worked with a Stockholm-based set decorator named Henrik Svensson to put this pagan cult together. The name “Hårga” was pulled from Swedish folklore about partygoers who dance until they die. The flower crowns and dances are seen in European summer solstice festivals. Much of the wallpapered spaces seen in the film were pulled from centuries-old preserved farms in Hälsingland. The Elder Futhark runes seen throughout the film are authentic. The skinning and hanging of a person, as seen with one of the less fortunate characters, is seen in some of the more gruesome North Germanic myths, and is known as the “blood eagle.” The number nine is significant, and that explains why 72 (a multiple of nine) is the chosen age of the horrifying cliff jumping practice. The name of the sites where this suicide, otherwise known as ritual seniside, took place is called Ättestupa and occurred during Nordic prehistoric times. Also, the multiples of nine are used to divide a human life into four quadrants, and this places our lead at the midpoint of her 18 seasons, seeing that it is her 27th birthday. And most obviously, there are nine practices during the nine day festival. Many of the dining and prayer scenes were taken from elements of ancient Scandinavian culture.
The film starts out with a twenty something Dani (Florence Pugh) crying on the phone with her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) about her mentally unstable sister, much to his chagrin. Quickly, a tragic and even haunting sequence of events unfolds, leaving our lead in shambles, traumatized and vulnerable, with a distant boyfriend and his judgmental group of friends (Will Poulter, William Jackson Harper of “The Good Place,” and Vilhelm Blomgren). Pitying her, the group invites Dani to join them in Pelle’s (Blomgren) hometown of Sweden to experience the sacred midsummer festivities he enjoyed growing up.
The film as a whole is a little slow to the build. Quietly moving along, the uncomfortable separateness between Dani and Christian, who have been together for roughly four years, are the driving force of the story. Dani can sense Christian’s discontent and, despite her sorrow, she seems to be bending over backwards to be accommodating, as not to annoy him or any of his buddies. Christian is polite at best. Aster made this movie to mimic the way that it feels to go through a break up, and that is particularly evident in the first half of the movie. Due to an effortlessly captivating performance by Pugh, Dani’s loneliness and desperation are felt through the screen so magnanimously that you feel those things too while watching.
Midway through, either due to copious amounts of hallucinogenics or just unfamiliar practices, the film takes a dramatic turn into the borderline surreal. “Midsommar” is theatrical and abrasive in its approach. Each ritual feels increasingly off-putting, violent and frightening, though, the film never truly falls into the category of horror. Beneath the surface of the shocking visuals, each character is experiencing a festering arc. Christian is a cowardly partner, unable to end his relationship, but unwilling to be supportive within it. Mark (Poulter) is a childish womanizer. And Josh (Harper) is blindly exploitative in his pursuit of ambition. It seems that each characters greatest vice may also be their downfall.
In a sweeping, extraordinary, explosive and mind-boggling finale, Dani, as Guardian writer Steve Rose most accurately wrote, “dressed up as a Jeff Coons puppy,” may have found a true sense of freedom in a most unexpected place. “Midsommar” is not the most comprehensive or triumphant film of the year, but it is certainly one of the most memorable.