Before I discuss this movie, let me digress a bit.
In 2008, there was a popular American movie, “Gran Torino,” whose plot was similar to that of “A Man Called Ove.” Clint Eastwood played Walt Kowalsky, a cranky, racist autoworker whose plant had closed, whose wife had just died and whose neighborhood was filling with Asian immigrants. Kowalsky was tightly wound and quick to anger. “Get off my lawn!” was his most famous line. Over the course of the movie, his sense of justice led him to help his Hmong neighbors and befriend them, ultimately exposing his humanity and generous heart.
A Man Called Ove
This movie came from a book that evolved from posts on a popular blog in Sweden. The book has been translated into many languages and has been well-received in other countries as well.
The lead character, Ove, has lost his job and, we learn over time, all the people who mattered to him. He is an unreformed grouch, the cranky enforcer of every niggling rule in his neighborhood. His efforts to kill himself are interrupted various times, most notably by the arrival next door of a pregnant Persian woman, her klutzy Swedish husband and their two daughters.
Over the course of “A Man Called Ove,” we learn the sources of his deep sorrow and we see him extend himself many times to help people. We learn that he is a soft-shelled character with a good heart. Over time and seemingly against his wishes, he gathers to himself an extended group of friends who care deeply for him.
Like Walt Kowalski, who treasured his 1972 Gran Torino, Ove is a Saab man who has no use for drivers of Volvos or BMWs. So they have the car thing in common. But where Walt comes off as a coiled spring ready to snap, Ove’s impatience with his neighbors becomes a source of humor.
The Swedish movie, like “Gran Torino,” ends on a bittersweet note.
Two Characters, Two Countries
Maybe the difference between the two films is the difference between Clint Eastwood and Rolf Lassgård, the Swedish actor. Or maybe it is the difference between the United States and Sweden.
The Ove source novel sold 650,000 copies in Sweden. An equally popular novel in the U.S. would sell 21 million copies. (True, “To Kill a Mockingbird” has sold more than 30 million copies here, but only over 60+ years. “A Man Called Ove” was published in 2014.) It seems fair to guess that Swedes are more devoted readers than Americans. Maybe it’s the cold winters; who knows?
And then there is the matter of violence. The “Gran Torino” plot is driven by threats of beatdowns and shootings. “A Man Called Ove” includes violent deaths, but only accidental ones. While Ove tries several times to kill himself, neither he nor any other character wishes physical harm to another person.
The Ove movie was a huge phenomenon in Sweden, where it won the country’s equivalent of the best-picture Oscar. Here, the film is being screened in small, arty theaters and is unlikely to get the kind of broad distribution that “Gran Torino” did. The New York Times review of “A Man Called Ove” seems to concede this point. Its last, summing-up sentence is this:
“Good-hearted stuff, to be sure, but mainly of interest to lovers of cinematic comfort food.”
Translated for Swedish readers, the point is this: American moviegoers aren’t a bunch of pussies, like de svenska folket.