‘The Last Autumn’ Review: The Majesty of Shepherds
This observational documentary about an aging farming couple on the Icelandic coast unfolds like an elegy to a life lived off the land.
By Devika Girish
Jan. 19, 2023. The Last Autumn
NYT Critic’s PickDirected by Yrsa Roca Fannberg1h 18m
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“The Last Autumn” feels like a missive from another planet, even as it chronicles the most mundane activities of terrestrial life: eating, cooking, farming, tending to animals. The ordinary life and routines of the documentary’s subjects, the aging farming couple Ulfar and Oddny, take place against an extraordinary backdrop: a desolate village on the Icelandic coast, nestled amid green mountains that slope into the frigid blue of the Arctic Ocean.
The director, Yrsa Roca Fannberg, follows the couple as they prepare for the annual autumnal ritual of herding their sheep down the mountain — though this year’s descent is tinged with doom. Ulfar and Oddny are selling their farm, and their beloved stock will either be sold or slaughtered. The film unfolds like an elegy to a life lived off the land. The camera closes in on the protagonists’ hands as they work meat or wood or fur, driving home the quiet majesty of manual labor.
Haunting music, a remote, aerial view and lens flares that tint the image blue and red turn the film’s shepherding sequences into a grand spectacle straight out of a horror or science fiction movie. As Ulfar, Oddny, their grandchildren and their neighbors herd the sheep down the mountain, they become dark figures chasing cloudy-white blobs across a mysterious, craggy expanse, while their walkie-talkie exchanges crackle eerily on the soundtrack.
By the time we get to the film’s closing scenes, in which the farmers crack open the skull of a ram and lime its hide, all while exchanging fond reminiscences about the animal, this modest documentary becomes something epic — a microcosm of the eternal cycles of life.
The Last Autumn
Not rated. In Icelandic, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 18 minutes. Watch on Film Movement Plus.