Based on Fredrik Backman’s New York Times bestseller and directed by Stockholm native Hans Holm, “A Man Called Ove” ranks among classic Swedish cinema. Having already been selected as the Swedish entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2017 Academy Awards, the film chronicles the adult life of Ove (Rolf Lassgard), a crotchety old man who has nothing to do besides visiting the grave of his wife Sonja and making sure no one violates the neighborhood codes.
Ove badgers anyone and everyone who gets in his way, whether they be a grocery store clerk or a juvenile delinquent. Ove begins a series of failed suicide attempts to reunite with his late wife. With each failure, it becomes increasingly apparent that Ove cannot die yet; there is too much he needs to see and learn.
His first attempt is comically foiled when he sees new neighbors backing over his mailbox while he is literally suspended in midair. Ripping the noose off, Ove runs outside to tell them off and, from that moment on, he is unable to take his own life. He later assists them by installing their dishwasher and babysitting their two children, eventually making his peace. He begins to remember what life was like when Sonja was still alive. Her kind, passionate spirit seems to guide him back to the land of the living, albeit quite predictably, and changes his aim from simple existence to an active pursuit of all life has to offer.
Ove fulfills the comedic archetype of the grouchy old man, similar to Clint Eastwood’s character in “Gran Torino.” In an interesting twist, he serves to undermine his own efforts toward finding true happiness. The plot follows a fairly predictable course full of sudden flashbacks and blossoming friendships, as Ove struggles to reconcile the past with the present and learn that he has a future even though his wife is dead.
Throughout the movie, the motif of engines is utilized on both a literal and metaphorical level to convey Ove’s mechanized methodology of moving forward. As he looks back on his life, some of the most important transitions have come by way of cars and trains. He remembers tinkering on the engine of his father’s Saab as a boy, meeting Sonja serendipitously on a train and eventually working as an engineer.
As the movie progresses and Ove makes piecemeal improvements in his attitude and actions, these metaphors serve as a fitting complement. With a dead engine, Ove certainly cannot move forward. Luckily, with a little help from his new neighbors, he gains the perspective and willpower to move forward.
The film’s setting in a small Swedish neighborhood may seem mundane, but it is key to the film’s success in portraying the realities of many retirees and struggling young families. The blend of the elderly — such as Ove’s old friend-turned-rival Rune and his wife – and the young also provide an important metaphorical aspect of Ove’s evolution. By being forced to confront past conflicts, such as his contentious relationship with Rune and an effervescent young family, Ove must literally reconcile the old with the new. As the film shows, suicide is no way to accomplish that.
Though “A Man Called Ove” follows a fairly static archetype of an old man in need of an attitude adjustment, the strong acting by Lassgard and the metaphorical undertones throughout the film make it both funny and heartwarming. With enough light to balance out the dark and a comedic end to a near tragic plot, the film is everything audiences could want in a modern dramatic comedy.
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