"HAMLET" and "Shadow of the Raven" have a lot in common: classic traditions, medieval settings, gorgeous scenery. But where Shakespeare's melancholy Dane is obsessed with revenge, the hero of the Icelandic "Raven" is obsessed with avoiding it.
Trausti (Reine Brynolfsson), like Hamlet, returns home after a period of study abroad to find his family in crisis. A whale -- the 11th-century Icelandic equivalent of buried treasure -- has washed up on his mother's land, and the rivals next door want it. Before you can say "save the whales," and Trausti can get his land legs, the scene erupts in violence and Mom (Helga Backman) is wounded. Family retainer and borderline psychopath Grim (Helgi Skulason) wants Trausti to exact retribution.
But Trausti no longer believes in the bloody ways of the Vikings, as his late pagan father did; instead, his studies in Norway have strengthened his Christian beliefs. He's even brought an Italian painter (and comic relief) to paint an altarpiece for his mother's church. Firm in his gentleness, Trausti lays down his sword in front of the offending neighbor -- just as Grim hurls his into the man's chest.
The storyline matches the breathtaking Icelandic landscape of fire and ice. As fast as Trausti cools one blaze with diplomacy, negotiations or outright forgiveness, another breaks out. Adding fuel to the fires is Isolde (Tinna Gunnlaugsdottir), the bewitchingly enigmatic beauty who attracts both Trausti and his dark-browed rival Hjorleif (Egil Olafsson). With a murdered father, a mother burnt as a witch and an illegitimate daughter, she gives off her own mysterious heat.
The saga by director and screenwriter Hrafn Gunnlaugsson reaches gripping heights, with several climactic stops along the way. Trausti's faith is poignantly steadfast, especially in light of the wrongs done him by a Jabba-the-Hutt-like bishop (Sune Mangs) and numerous betrayals. Brynolfsson impresses us with his essential goodness even after he is forced to leaven Christian charity with some Norse force. You may find your faith in narrative tested by Trausti's Rasputin-like survival ability -- but only if you don't believe in legends and love.
SHADOW OF THE RAVEN (Unrated) -- In Icelandic with subtitles. Biograph.