A Man Called Ove (2016)
The cranky old man stereotype is universally found in fairy tales and films and are abundant in real life. They are easy targets to laugh at, pity, or to incite fear, and their grumpiness, loneliness, and declining relevance fuels their image. As if aging itself was not undignified enough, old men are also often depicted as mad or heading in that direction. In this context, A Man Called Ove (2016) is an unusually sympathetic, darkly funny, and insightful essay on the inner life of a lonely old man, playfully blended with themes of multi-culturalism in homogenous Swedish society.
Ove (Rolf Lassgard) is the self-appointed superintendent of rules and manners in a small Swedish neighbourhood where everyone knows everybody. Having recently lost his wife to cancer and then retrenched after a lifetime on the railways, he is seriously suicidal. He fills his time by policing minor breaches of community rules with his gruff rebukes that keep the neighbourhood orderly. His daily patrols, helping the neighbours, and visiting his wife’s grave are the only things keeping him alive. His tormented peace is disturbed when a noisy Iranian family move in next door. Even worse, they seem to be lovely people with nice children and they bring gifts of friendship at inconvenient times. Their arrival temporarily distracts Ove from his death-wish and whenever he readies the noose he is again interrupted by someone who needs him. Ove is always helping others while his own inner turmoil goes unrecognised.
This simple, uneventful plotline is merely the picture frame for one of the most poignant portraits of grief you will find on film. While there is comedy aplenty in watching Ove relate to others, the deeper layers are anything but funny. The emotional pivot points of the story are Ove’s grief and his promise to soon join his wife. If you are looking for comedy it is easy to miss glimpses of his deep despair mixed with his undiminished love for his wife. The acting comes from the school of understated realism and it avoids the melodrama that usually accompanies the grief genre. With deadpan Swedish gravitas, the most ordinary gesture, like Ove looking at his wife’s photo or chatting at her graveside, is deeply moving. Frequent flashbacks fill out the story of Ove’s life and towards the end of the film it is impossible to see him as just a cranky old man. The new family has given his life new meaning, and there are many beautiful moments shared between Ove and his pregnant neighbour. But he is always haunted by the promise to join his wife.
There is a fine line between formulaic melancholy and the lyrical depiction of deep emotion. The Swedes are renown for doing deadpan comedy with dramatic force, and this trait shines in Ove. Little happens in terms of narrative propulsion, and any claim to originality is tenuous. The sheer force of the film lies in a lonely man’s memories expressed through Ove’s wide-eyed face. Some viewers may feel emotionally manipulated but that would be a harsh judgement. This is an outstanding film about universal emotions that all of us at some time will witness or experience.
Director: Hannes Holm
Stars: Rolf Lassgard, Ida Engvoll, Bahar Pars