Indignity in Sweet Mode: A Man Called Ove
By Gary M. Kramer.
The title character of A Man Called Ove would probably not see the heartwarming Swedish film, A Man Called Ove, adapted from Fredrik Backman’s national bestseller (2012, English translation in 2013). He is far too cynical, and would call this gentle comedy-drama “mush nonsense.” Still, this poignant, touching crowd-pleaser might melt his hard-heartedness.
A 59-year-old widower who leaves his job as the film opens, Ove (Rolf Lassgård) has more contempt than patience for other people – he refers to almost everyone as an “idiot.” He is also planning to kill himself to end the misery that is life. But just as he is about the hang himself, new neighbors move in and disrupt his solitude by periodically requiring Ove’s assistance and attention. Parvaneh (Bahar Pars) is a pregnant Persian woman with an “idiot” Swedish husband Patrik (Tobias Almborg) and two young daughters (Nelly Jamarani and Zozan Akgun). She proves to be a perfect foil for Ove. She is kind where he is unpleasant; she’s optimistic where he is curmudgeonly. He reluctantly assists her when she needs childcare. She cooks him chicken and saffron rice, which he grudgingly admits is delicious. She thaws his big, cold heart.
The best scenes in this engaging film have this odd couple at odds. She bosses him about when a stray cat camps out on his doorstop, and he teaches her how to drive, letting her know in no uncertain terms that if she can have children, learn a foreign language, and hold down a job, surely she can move an automobile forward. Yes, A Man Called Ove is a feel good odd-couple comedy, however, it also has its share of unfortunate traumas that prompt Ove’s depression. There are points raised about fate, and there is even an It’s a Wonderful Life quality to the film in that Ove’s character impacts the lives of those around him more than he might care to admit. These messages go down smoothly given the film – and Ove’s – tough-but-tender nature.
Ove is a stickler for rules in the neighborhood he patrols – keep the gate closed, no driving on the paths, and lock up your bicycles. He also cares for his car, putting newspaper on the seats to protect it. He has his reasons for being so rigid. Viewers come to understand how Ove developed his obstreperous demeanor. Of course, he will soften his position over time.
A series of nostalgia-tinged flashbacks depict Ove as a young man (Filip Berg). He recalls his father, whom he loved, and lost in a freak accident, as well as his late wife, Sonia (Ida Engvoll), whom he frequently visits and talks to at the cemetery. While these episodes flesh out Ove’s character, a tragedy involving Sonia is foreshadowed, which builds suspense in a drawn-out episode.
Yet this life-affirming character study shows that despite Ove reprimanding almost everyone he encounters for even the most minor infraction – he cannot help but do good deeds. Ove is seen returning a wallet he found as a child, saving folks from a burning house as a young man, and even rescuing a man who fell on the train tracks. He may be what one character calls a “nit-picking obstructionist,” but Ove is more complex than he may appear. While viewers are given a step-and-repeat motif outlining his fastidiousness, A Man Called Ove never makes his transformation to nicer guy feel too heavy-handed.
This may be in part because Ove is a surprisingly sympathetic character. If nothing else, he believes in justice – especially at the expense of “white shirts,” bureaucrats who fail to take people’s full situation into account. A subplot involving Ove’s friend Rune (Börje Lundberg), who is in the process of being committed to an institution addresses this point – albeit somewhat obliquely for foreign audiences. Ove is also keen on social justice. When a character in a wheelchair requires a ramp, he builds it, simply because he feels no one should be disadvantaged – especially when white shirts are too pig-headed to realize the benefits of helping others. Likewise, after he inadvertently outs a young gay man, Mirsad (Poyan Karimi) to his homophobic father, Ove lets the man stay with him, as he feels responsible for the gay man’s plight. Ove might not like people, and he may treat folks poorly, but he will never turn away from someone in need.
While there are perhaps too many stories in the film that reveal Ove’s true character, narrative digressions, such as one about his penchant for driving Saabs while his friend Rune prefers Volvos, are amusing.
In the lead role, Lassgård is terrific, providing just the right mix of grumpiness and kindness to make Ove a likable misanthrope. Scenes of him causing trouble with a hospital clown or a nosy reporter are appropriately droll, but he is also excellent in an emotional scene when Ove has a bit of a meltdown. In support, Bahar Pars is sunny without being cloying as Parvaneh, a woman who seems to find the good in life, whereas Ove sees only the bad. Her sweetness nicely tempers the film’s sourer elements.
A Man Called Ove is will certainly charm viewers who prefer gentle humor over ribaldry, and who have an appreciation for people maintaining their dignity, even if various characters suffer some indignities at the hands of Ove.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.