Audiences who settle down for the Swedish film A Man Called Ove should forgive themselves for thinking early on that they have seen this one before. They may think that the man who is indeed called Ove (Rolf Lassgård) seems terribly familiar. He is a type that lurks on the margins of our culture — the crusty curmudgeon.
As the head of his community council, Ove gets up each morning and conducts his rounds — checking the gates, barking out regulations at the residents walking their pets (which are either forbidden or strictly discouraged) and generally causing passersby to give him the widest berth possible. Even when buying flowers on his way to visit his wife’s grave, Ove winds up bickering with a salesperson over the price. And when he gets to work at the train depot where he has been employed for more than 40 years, his domineering style continues.
In most cases, Ove is not obnoxiously coarse, just officious to a fault. He is a man who lives by the rules, wondering why everyone else seems to have such a difficult time doing the same.
Writer-director Hannes Holm, working from a novel by Fredrik Backman, has fashioned a figure cut from the same pattern used by Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. There, Eastwood breathed his own brand of life into Walt Kowalski, a disgruntled Korean War veteran in withdrawal after the death of his wife, but forced to engage with an immigrant teen neighbor who attempts to steal his 1972 Gran Torino. Seething with anger, Walt at first can’t believe his wife left him to deal with this world. It seems, in film, there truly is no country for old men.
Ove soon finds himself in his own version of Kowalski’s hell on Earth. One fine morning, he quits his job and begins to prepare to join his wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll) in death. It is plain that his decision isn’t quite as sad and desperate as we might imagine. He simply wants to move on, with finality, on his own terms.
But life won’t let him. The primary catalyst for change arrives in the form of Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), a pregnant Middle Eastern immigrant who moves in next door to Ove with her two daughters. She slowly chips away at his quiet resolve. On the morning she and her family appear, Ove has dressed, surveyed the block and secured a noose to a hook in his living room. He’s about to kick the stool from under his feet when he catches sight of this ragtag brood. A few days later, he has rigged a hose from his car exhaust so that he can asphyxiate himself, but Parvaneh knocks on the garage, in need of assistance. Slowly, Ove comes to appreciate that maybe he has a task or two that he needs to complete before he will be granted his wish to be with Sonja.
Holm’s film departs from the Gran Torino blueprint. Rather than locking us into the present, A Man Called Ove weaves its way into Ove’s past, allowing us glimpses into the moments that shaped him into the man he now is. We see the young boy who lost his mother and was raised by a loving and devoted father whose subsequent death helped seal Ove’s fate, locking him into a life that might not have been of his choosing. We watch as Ove has his first encounter with “the white shirts,” the arbitrary makers of oppressive rules.
And we have the privilege of being close to him when he meets Sonja, woos and wins her and then starts what he dreams will be a fantastic new life with her.
Yet, he’s not a creature of pure fantasy like the protagonist in The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, another recent Swedish film. That tapped into a Forrest Gump-like brand of whimsy. A certain measure of humor informs A Man Called Ove, but it is not hokey or nostalgic. Instead, this film cherishes a knowing wisdom that leaves us with a wistful smile. (Opens Friday at Esquire Theatre) (PG-13) Grade: B+
(A Man Called Ove is Sweden’s official selection for Best Foreign Language Feature)