A Man Called Ove was one of five nominees for this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, won by the preseason favorite, the Iranian movie The Salesman, whose director had won previously for the amazing film A Separation. Ove was Sweden’s submission for the award, and it is a perfectly serviceable movie but not remarkable in any way. It’s just very well-made and well-acted, but it’s based on a best-selling book of the same name that seems like the sort feel-good pablum that offers a superficial meaning-of-life message like “be nice to others.”
Ove is a grumpy old man, recently widowed, obsessed with following and enforcing rules, making enemies of everyone in his little planned community. He’s utterly miserable and tries multiple times in the film to kill himself to be with his beloved wife, Sonja. When a new family moves in, with the father Swedish and the mother, Parvaneh, of Iranian descent, they interrupt more than one of these suicide attempts, and the mother seems totally immune to his misanthropy, forcing herself into his life, making him teach her to drive and even to watch her kids one night, to the point where she cracks his exterior and gets him to tell her (and us) his life story. In the end, Ove becomes a changed man, a friend to all, a grandfather surrogate to her kids, and I’m sure you can guess what happens after that. (It’s available to rent on amazon and iTunes.)
This movie goes nowhere without the performance of Rolf Lassgård as Ove (pronounced “OOH-vuh”), a turn that won him the Swedish equivalent of the Academy Award for Best Actor. Ove is the only nuanced character in the entire film, a grumpy old man whose grumpiness is a cover for misery, loneliness, and a return to the chronic shyness that plagued him pre-Sonja. There’s something inexplicable in his resistance to kind overtures from neighbors, or simple requests from one woman he’s known for decades to help fix her radiator. (The reason turns out to be both funny and stupid at once.) It seems like Lassgård had a harder task because he was playing a character whose complexity was compromised by the absurdity of his behavior.
The story itself is faintly ridiculous, not least because the movie never gives us a single reason to think that Sonja, who is kind, intelligent, and very pretty, would have the slightest interest in the insular, moody, and unromantic Ove. He doesn’t so much pursue her as stalk her, and she responds by more or less leading him around by the nose. They have almost nothing in common, and their personalities are dead opposites. I can see why she illuminated Ove’s life to the point where he says there was nothing before Sonja and there is nothing after her, but what exactly did she see in him?
(Incidentally, part of why I found Sonja so compelling was her taste in literature. When they first meet, she’s reading The Master and Margarita, my favorite novel ever.)
Parvaneh is too relentlessly positive to be realistic, and the fact that she’s already very pregnant at the start of the movie means we know that baby is going to pop out before the film ends, probably at a dramatic or inopportune moment. (It’s like Chekhov’s gun.) The story checks all the boxes about modern prejudice – we see Ove get over his casual sexism, racism, and homophobia over the course of the film. And one of the various subplots in the story, the fate of Ove’s neighbor and former rival Rune, has an utterly ridiculous deus-ex sort of resolution that undermined all of the details that came before it. None of this made Ove’s revival in the film’s final 20 minutes any less emotional to watch, but when A Man Called Ove was done, I had the distinct feeling of having consumed a lot of empty calories.