There haven’t been many movies that tell the story of the Sami people of Scandinavia, an indigenous race that has been the victim of ethnic bigotry and systemic cultural suppression in Norway, Sweden and other Nordic countries. The 2002 film “The Cuckoo,” by Russian filmmaker Alexander Rogozhkin, told a small sliver of that story, in a fable about three people thrown together during the tail end of World War II: one a Russian soldier; one a Finnish Nazi conscript; and the other a young Sami woman on a reindeer farm (none of whom speaks anyone else’s language).
Set mostly in the 1930s, the poignant new film “Sami Blood” — by first-time feature filmmaker Amanda Kernell, a Swede with Sami ancestry on her father’s side — serves up another little slice of that troubled history, with its story of 14-year-old Sami reindeer herder Elle-Marja, a precocious spitfire who, with her little sister Njenna, has been sent from the village where they grew up to a Swedish state-run boarding school for Sami children. There, the sisters are expected to speak only Swedish, as they are subjected to racial examinations by doctors who poke at them, with calipers, like zoo animals, as well as the taunting insults of ethnic Swedes from the neighboring community, where Samis are said to “stink” and be “filthy.”
Played by real-life sisters Lene Cecilia and Mia Erika Sparrok, Elle-Marja and Njenna are delights, but it’s the elder sibling’s performance that is the revelation. With her wide features and darting eyes — half furtive and half curious — the teenage newcomer beautifully embodies the survival instincts and self-loathing of a girl who has internalized the prejudice surrounding her and who uses her brains and moxie not to deflect attacks but to deny her own identity. Over the course of the film, Elle-Marja runs away to Uppsala, where she talks her way into the home of a boy she has just met — and, eventually, into a Swedish girls’ school — using her gift for language and assimilation to hide her roots.
How long that self-deception can persist, and what the psychic costs may be, are the central questions of the film, which opens with Elle-Marja as an old woman (Maj-Doris Rimpi), attending Njenna’s funeral. Told in flashback, “Sami Blood” is a beautiful, haunting film, anchored by a startlingly accomplished lead performance. It has the feeling of a distant memory — one that is neither entirely pleasant nor painful, but persistent.
If Kernell’s point is that you can’t deny who you are, this lovely, lyrical little film never hammers that point home. Rather, “Sami Blood” leaves its questions about identity hanging in the air, like the scent of something or someone that passed by long ago, but that still lingers — mysterious and mesmerizing — in the breeze.
Unrated. At Landmark’s West End Cinema. Contains brief violence. In Swedish and Sami with subtitles.