What would a Swedish film be without a suicide, or at least an attempt or two? And what would a best foreign language Oscar hopeful be without sentimentality, winsomeness, and a heavy-handed endorsement of universal values? Hannes Holm’s “A Man Called Ove” offers both; and because of the performance of Rolf Lassgård in the title role, nearly pulls it off.
As old Ove, Lassgård combines cuddly and curmudgeonly like a Stellan Skarsgård verging on Werner Herzog. The soon-to-be ex-railroad supervisor has seen better days — and so do we, as the film awkwardly lapses into flashbacks during (spoiler!) Ove’s various self-inflicted near-death experiences. The son of the previous manager, young Ove (Filip Berg, who looks like Skarsgård’s son Alexander) learns from his father not to grieve when someone dies, how to maintain a Saab 90, and why it’s important to look both ways when crossing a railroad track. All metaphors, perhaps, if Ove was a metaphor kind of guy.
Then he meets cute (in a Bergmanesque way) the love of his life, Sonja (Ida Engvoll).
Bring on the misfortunes! They include cancer, a stroke, a miscarriage, a coma, automation, tyranny from the “white shirts” — the ruthless bureaucrats whom Ove blames for all his troubles — and a bus plunge. Not to mention the endless violations of the condo community rules that anal Ove still enforces despite being replaced as head of the committee through a “coup” by his erstwhile best friend, Rune (Börje Lundberg).
But — slowly recognized though it may be — hope comes in the form of his new neighbors, feckless Patrick (Tobias Almborg); his feisty, vastly pregnant wife, Parveneh (Bahar Pars); and her two sweet and smart-alecky kids. Has an old grump ever been able to resist melting before adorable children, not to mention a savvy Iranian woman who might go into labor at a key narrative moment? Not to mention a nameless stray Persian kitty.
But Lassgård won’t let you off easy: A scene in which Ove weeps hopelessly before the magnitude of his loneliness will bring tears to the eyes of anyone who has suffered a loss. His Ove is a man indeed.
A MAN CALLED OVE
Directed by Hannes Holm. Written by Holm and Fredrik Backman, based on Backman’s novel. Starring Rolf Lassgård, Bahar Pars, Ida Engvoll, Filip Berg, Börje Lundberg. At Kendall Square. 116 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for thematic content, some disturbing images, and language). In Swedish, with subtitles.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.