A tree sparks a spat between neighbours in Haffstein Gunnar Sigurðsson black comedy Under the Tree.

When Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson), husband to Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir) and father of young daughter Asa (Sigrídur Sigurpálsdóttir Scheving), is caught by his wife having a crafty wank early one morning to a video of him and an ex-girlfriend having sex, he is thrown out on the street.  With nowhere to go, but home, Atli heads for his parent’s place where an altogether different, but equally vicious confrontation is brewing.

Atli’s parents Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) and Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) are the proud owners of a maple tree, a rarity in Iceland’s capital Reykjavik.  But, much to the irritation of neighbours Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir) and Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann), the tree casts a large shadow into their garden. When polite requests go unheard, insults are exchanged, and tit for tat escalates into a suburban guerrilla war with deadly consequences.

Sigurðsson weaves between two narratives and whilst the fractured, slow deterioration of Atli’s marriage and the inevitable ugliness of a custody battle seems the more urgent story when coupled with the absurdity of his parent’s neighbourly feud we are provided a quietly affecting insight into the futile and ridiculous nature of conflict.

The film is imbued with a palpable sense of sadness, cruelty, and dread, but not without sympathy and flecks of comedy.  We discover that Atli’s brother disappeared several years earlier, assumed to have killed himself, but with no body recovered.  

Whilst both Atli and Baldvin suffer, they have come to terms with it.  Inga, however, has not met the same form of closure and clings to the possibility that her son may still be alive.  Her distress manifests itself in a slow alcoholism and flashes of spitefulness, and Sigurðsson uses this to generate some of the larger laughs and suggest the importance of context and the complexity of emotionally compulsive behaviour.

Under the Tree may have failed to secure a foreign-language Oscar nomination, but its melancholy and mirth will charm and alarm you.

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