A MAN CALLED OVE (2015 in Sweden/2016 in USA)
Directed by Hannes Holm
Music Box Films, PG-13, 116 minutes, Subtitled.
I approached this film with some trepidation, as the Fredrik Backman novel from which A Man Called Ove was adapted is one of my favorite books of the decade. Although the film isn't as good as the book (few are!), I'm happy to report that it's a delight in its own right.
Director Hannes Holm is so faithful to Backman's story that it's pointless for me to rehash what I said in my book review, so here's the link. The story is essentially that of a misanthrope with a heart. To call it gold would be too much, so let's call it one that's been frozen, but that can be slowly defrosted. Ove is not an easy man to like, but when you discover the myriad reasons for his bitterness, it's amazing that he's only a "difficult" bugger rather than an impossible one. He's stubborn to a fault, and his need for order and habit is high on the OCD scale, but being a standup guy is not just his identity--it's the way he thinks the entire world should work. Ove simply has no time or respect for phonies, officious fools, dishonesty, incompetence, or people who butt their noses into other people's business. Nor does he blithely accept the dozens of small absurdities that govern everyday life; he rants against and questions every one of them. In an odd way, it makes Ove admirable. On some level, we might even be jealous of Ove. He's more courageous than we in that he's willing to choose the path of most resistance rather than surrender to those he sees as "idiots." He's often very funny, but unintentionally so, which makes this film's abundant humor a form of black comedy.
Ove would be content to stay to himself or, better yet, join his beloved wife in the grave. But that wouldn't make much of a book or film, would it? Nor would it help us understand how Ove became such a taciturn cynic. Again taking his lead from Backman, Holm breaks and reassembles Ove's narrative arc to help us see how the child is the father of the man. Although Rolf Lassgård is the lead actor, Holm uses two others–Viktor Baggøe and Filip Berg–to take us back to the tragedies and triumphs that shaped Ove at age 7 and in his young adulthood. All three actors are terrific, as is Ida Engroll as the departed Sonja. In many ways, hers is the most difficult role. She's essentially a revenant and has to show us how Ove's light brightened and then dimmed, but her role is nearly wordless. When she must, Ms. Engroll communicates enormous amounts of information through gestures so small that it's only later we realize what she's told us.
Wordlessness is not something one would associate with Parvaneh (Bahr Pars), Ove's meddlesome new neighbor who won't take "Go away!" for an answer. It becomes her role—and that of a scruffy cat—to put some cracks in Ove's shellacked exterior, which she does through a combination of charm and countervailing stubborness. It is, however, a testament to both Backman and Holm that Ove cracks but never breaks. A Man called Ove is very sweet in places, but there is no Hallmark Channel magival transformation or mystical conversion experience. Ove remains Ove, even when a lot of his misanthropy gets redirected at those who deserve to be targets.
The Swedes seem to excel at making slice-of-life small films that are, at once, quirky, darkly funny, and tragic, yet oddly life affirming. Place this one is the same category as films such as My Life as a Dog; Egg! Egg! A Hardboiled Story, Simple Simon, and The Hundred-year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. As for A Man Called Ove, I shall redux my book review defense of cliché: "You'll laugh; you'll cry."