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Icelanders Relish Bounty of Cultural Pursuits

The island nation surpasses most others in its rate of book-buying, theater productions, and filmgoing

Filmgoers in the United States checking out Fridrik Fridriksson's "Cold Fever," the new cult classic from Iceland, witness a bleak, snowy, and remote island, populated by offbeat characters, eerie landscapes, and the memory of ghosts. The real place contains much more.

Ever since Iceland founded Europe's oldest Parliament, in AD 930, its inhabitants have fashioned a unique homeland, somehow turning isolation into a virtue. And instead of focusing only on survival skills, Icelanders have nurtured their minds and spirits as well as their bodies.

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Rich in culture far beyond its limited size, Iceland claims the highest per capita rate of film and theater attendance, book purchases, and theater productions. Its 260,000 inhabitants publish about 600 books annually, read five daily national and dozens of local newspapers, and support nearly 80 professional and amateur theater companies.

One leader in this abundance of culture is Iceland's National Theater. Housed in an imposing, modern Broadway-size facility in the country's capital, Reykjavik, the government-funded National Theater brings audiences an expanding repertory of classical, contemporary, and native works. Its past two seasons have ranged from Shakespeare's "As You Like It" and Dostoevski's "The Idiot" to a full-scale production of "West Side Story" and the premire of a new Icelandic play "Tears of Endurance." All enjoyed sold-out status.

A second professional group in Reykjavik, which has a population of 125,000, is the City Theater, specializing in new works. A recent one-act festival series, staged Saturday afternoons, attracted more than 100 people.

Even amateur groups with a track record receive public funding and popular support. One of the best, Hugleiku, or Light Nights, presents riotous satires on Icelandic culture, lampooning sacred sagas, myths, and popular topics. Forty actors, singers, writers, directors, musicians, designers, and stagehands work in a splendid theater at the rim of Tjornin Lake in the heart of the city.

Self-taught, this company regularly pulls in capacity audiences, including whole families, for their lively, well-paced comedies and musicals. "Along with such great responses here," says playwright and actor Saevar Sigurgjeirsson, "we sometimes take our shows to other towns, where they're also very popular."

Akureyri, Iceland's "second city," with 15,000 people, maintains two professional theater groups. Last season's production of the native play "Devil's Island," running during a blizzard, still played to full houses. And that work, based on a popular novel by Einar Karason, is being turned into a new film by Fridrik Fridriksson, following his critically acclaimed "Cold Fever."

Using actual locations and an elaborate re-creation of postwar slums in what has become the country's most expensive film set ever built, Fridriksson has assembled a first-rate crew to bring this edgy, culture-clash drama to the screen. As actors, extras, gaffers, and cameramen line up outside the converted school bus to pick up their fish-stew lunch, the director relaxes for a moment outside Domkirkjan, the centuries-old church serving as the day's location.

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"It is a next step for me," he says. "This is a genuine Icelandic story, but it has a definite ability to apply to any place where cultures and generations collide."

All day long, cast members play out wedding, christening, and funeral scenes inside the splendid walls of the magnificent chapel, chronicling the passage of time among a group of poor, struggling, and often fiercely determined families facing the uncertainties of a postwar world and the emerging influence of American culture.

Fridriksson, whose "Children of Nature" was nominated for an Academy Award as best foreign film, draws from the pool of actors trained on the professional stage, including one, Sigurveig Jonsdottir, whose portrayal of the matriarch in the Akureyri production of "Devil's Island" garnered nationwide acclaim.

"Devil's Island" embodies the curious mix of tough-as-nails hardiness and deeply sentimental spiritual introspection laced throughout Icelandic life and culture. A visit to the countryside, either on a day-long bus tour or a more extensive camping expedition, offers clues to the origin of these national traits.

Glaciers cover about a tenth of the island, and the largest, Vatnajokull, equals all of Europe's glaciers combined. Hot springs, on the other side of the temperature equation, dot Iceland. The Gullfoss and Geysir region, with its commanding waterfalls and geysers that erupt with both steam and hot water, challenge the senses.

But summers produce rolling green fields, sprays of wildflowers, and the memorable midnight sun, which hovers just above the horizon line before climbing back up into the sky. Close to the capital, the Blue Lagoon proves to be another paradox of logic - a large sulphur-fed pool, steam rising from its 80-degree surface, that invites visitors to take a soothing dip even when the weather drops below freezing. Even non-swimmers can enjoy the warm water, since its composition offers a highly buoyant surface.

Nature's influence shows up in the work of Iceland's artists, featured at several municipal museums and art galleries. One of the most extensive collections of Icelandic art graces the guest rooms, lobbies, and dining room of Hotel Holt. The Holt's restaurant, lined with bold, mural-sized canvases, features hearty yet subtle cuisine.

Another world-class eating establishment, Laekjarbbrekka, fashioned from an authentic fishing cottage, also combines native dishes such as reindeer stew, smoked lamb, and countless variations of fresh seafood dishes with an impressive display of the country's best artwork.

Young musicians in Iceland don't just start a band - they generate their own CDs. And musical tastes of all types get a hearing in Reykjavik, from the tony Jazz Bar overlooking the central square, to the world's northernmost (and smallest) Opera House, a regal wooden edifice of hand-carved detail with its own full season of classical presentations.

Small clubs and coffeehouses also add to the cultural diversity, with some specializing in traditional tunes while others cater to generation-X sounds. The Solon Islandus, with its own art gallery, and the avant-garde Club 22, with dancing upstairs, attract the liveliest and most colorful members of the artistic community.

The wonders of nature, however, never completely disappear from sight in Iceland. Even in the heart of the capital, distant snowcapped mountains frame the landscape, with the shoreline only a 10-minute walk away.

The "Devil's Island" film crew capitalizes on this proximity, setting up an outdoor shot near the port. Looking like a chrome-and-steel whale from the North Atlantic, a splashy '57 Plymouth is lowered by crane onto the gravel. Cast members rehearse their lines as director Fridriksson positions the camera to capture the shimmering, icy peaks offshore.

"It's a great shot," he states approvingly. "We're going to bring a whole new story about Iceland to the world."

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