I once asked a Swedish friend to recommend some Swedish-language comedies for me to watch. "Swedish language comedies?" Henrik said. "Let me think about this." A few days later, I received an email from him with some tentative suggestions and went to the library to check them out. The first, "Together," opens with a woman leaving her abusive husband and moving with her two children into a commune. Their presence naturally causes some disruptions in the workings of this hothouse of leftists, none of which are really laugh-out-loud funny. The second, "As It Is in Heaven," is the story of an orchestra conductor who, suffering health problems, retreats to his childhood home in Norrland, where he ends up struggling to lead a small choir while also confronting memories of terrible bullying during his youth — oh, and he dies in the end. (That's not a spoiler — this is a Swedish movie, after all.)
As moving as both films were, they were not comedies as we understand that word but more meditations upon identity and mortality. However, the newest release to arrive here from Sweden, "A Man Called Ove," offers a somewhat different experience. Rolf Lassgård plays the titular Ove, an old widower who is the terror of his neighborhood, going out every morning to do his "rounds" — making sure that the neighborhood association rules are being followed to the letter and that no bicycles are parked where not permitted, for example. In general, he is a tyrant to everyone he meets, a taciturn giant who mutters to himself about the world being run by "idiots." Even when he goes to visit the grave of his recently departed wife, Sonja, he spends much of his time complaining about the cost of flowers these days. So when he loses his job as a railroad engineer, Ove finds himself lacking the last bit of meaning his life offered. He dresses in his finest suit and hangs a noose in the living room.
Before he can kick the chair from beneath his feet, however, he sees through his front window someone attempting, very badly, to back a trailer into a lot across the street. Unable to withstand such a gross display of incompetence, he rushes out to take charge, thus inserting himself into the life of Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), a pregnant Iranian woman moving into the neighborhood with her husband, Patrick (Tobias Almborg), and their two children. As his life becomes entangled in theirs, more people come to him for help, interrupting his every suicide attempt with some new request or other. Indeed, he goes back to the grave of his wife time and again to apologize for making her wait on him — if he can just get all these idiots sorted out, he could join her like he had planned long ago.
But as we follow this story, we also get glimpses into Ove's past: the death of his parents, his work cleaning out railroad cars, and the day he met Sonja, a young woman studying to be a teacher. As Ove reveals more of his past, especially the tragedy which befell Sonja, we understand how he came to be this way. Writer/director Hannes Holm offers a comedic experience far different from lighter American fare, making the laughter so much sweeter by contrast to the tears wrung from the viewer. This is no simple tale of a grumpy geezer warming up to young people. It is a comedy in the more traditional sense of that word: a tale that highlights man's foibles.
After all, comedy runs closely parallel to tragedy; the defining difference between "Othello" and "Much Ado About Nothing" is how they end. Aristotle emphasized the experience of catharsis in tragedy, but "A Man Called Ove" offers a similar cleansing experience, with sadness and hilarity enough to leave the viewer feeling joyfully drained by the time the credits roll (not unlike last year's "Inside Out"). So it turns out that there is such a thing as a Swedish comedy, but instead of cheap laughs and easy distraction, "A Man Called Ove" offers, instead, a renewed outlook on the whole experience of living.