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Three Scandinavian Films

What say we move the conversation away from politics for the moment. Last month I had the good fortune to see three films in the NW Film Center's week-long series New Scandinavian Cinema. It is not likely you will have the opportunity to catch these at your local theater. None is a must-see. Each is worth seeing. We would not see many films, and we would miss much that is rewarding, if we cut ourselves off from all but the must-see ones. Each of these films made the day a better day than it would have been.

Nice People (Sweden 2015) dirs. Anders Helgeson, Karin af Klintberg (100 mins) Trailer Nice People is a sweet documentary flavored with gentle humor and poignant glimpses into the life of Somali refugees in the small Swedish town of Borlänge. The film takes its name from the town motto, whose appropriateness we might question as some of the Swedish residents express their opinions about the 3,000 Somali immigrants living in their midst. In this country they might well be of the Trumpist persuasion...oh, drat, here I go again after setting out to steer clear of politics. The stuff is ubiquitous.

Patrik Andersson is something of a small-time hustler, likable, a little goofy, his heart in the right place, described by his wife, an immigrant herself, as cocky as he strides about town in his cowboy boots, longish hair dyed and stylishly cut. Patrik hatches a scheme to bring the Swedish and Somali communities together by forming a Somali national bandy team to compete for the 2014 world championship in Irkutsk, Siberia.

Bandy is more or less ice hockey played with a ball instead of a puck. According to Wikipedia bandy was a precursor to hockey and based on number of participants is after ice hockey the world's second most popular winter sport. News to me, but who am I to question Wikipedia, which I hope we can take to be a more reliable source of information than Facebook turns out to be.

Patrik brings in a professional coach, a famous former bandy player notorious in his day for being a hothead. Together they recruit a team with eight months to prepare for the world championship. First order of business is teaching the Somalis to skate.

Meantime Patrik hustles up sponsors such as the Hong Kong restaurateur who gruffly demands to know what is in it for him. His tone changes though when he addresses the team in a spirit of solidarity, telling them they are not doing this just for themselves and their fellow Somalis. They are representing all immigrants. It does not come off hokey at all when he tells them it does not matter if they win or lose. Just play hard.

The players are young fellows in the late teens and twenties who came to Sweden to escape violence and chaos in their homeland, determined to get an education in the hope that it will be the gateway to a better life for themselves and their families. Among them is Ahmed, who left his mother behind in Somalia thinking she would join him. They remain painfully separated because she has never received permission to immigrate though she has applied many times. They speak by phone as often as possible. He sends her money and dreams of returning to Somalia to see her. Ahmed's bond with his mother is a beautiful thing.

No one takes the team as a joke. Ahmed and his teammates consider it an honor to represent their country in a world championship competition for a sport they never heard of until they were recruited for the team. They want to do well, they do not want to embarrass themselves or Somalia, but the task before them is daunting.

When the tournament begins it soon becomes apparent that it is not a question of whether the Somalis can win a game, but whether they will score a goal. Nonetheless these young men acquit themselves with honor and come away from the experience triumphant without having won a game, ready to begin training for the 2015 world championship competition. Nice People is a touching film that acquits itself with honor and comes away triumphant.

Blóðberg (The Homecoming) (Iceland 2015) dir. Björn Hkynur Haraldsson (100 mins) Trailer An intensely dramatic scenario is deftly sprinkled with humor in The Homecoming. Some scenes evoke Ingmar Bergman, others Woody Allen in his lighter efforts. The drama and humor are wedded seamlessly so that conflict and ethical dilemma are never trivialized by situations and dialogue played for laughs.

Gunnar is a sociologist trapped by his own success as the author of bestselling self-help books. His ambition to write something substantive is thwarted by the lure of easy money that leads him to write the same book over and over, with his publisher slapping a different title on each one. His pearls of wisdom are that real joy comes from the inside and the key to a successful relationship is talking and listening. His audience laps it up.

The books pay for an expensive and beautiful house where he lives with Dísa, his wife of thirty years who works in a hospital. Dísa is a bit ditzy after a fashion, while Gunnar is affable and accepts a certain existential shallowness as the price for his comfortable life. The couple get on well enough, but they talk and live somewhat around one another, as if at this stage their relationship is based for the most part on habit. Conversation tends to be superficial. Not a lot of listening happens.

Things go topsy-turvy when David, their only child, pays a visit and surprises them with his new girlfriend and the announcement that they are getting married. Over lunch Sunna the girlfriend tells them about herself, raised by her mother, never knew her father. Gunnar's face takes on a troubled expression as it dawns on him that Sunna is his daughter from an extramarital affair many years earlier.

The only person who knows Gunnar's secret is his brother, who is in the hospital with a zipper scar on the side of his head from multiple brain surgeries. Though the brother has problems of his own, he listens sympathetically before advising Gunnar that he must tell the truth, to which Gunnar responds, "The truth? Are you crazy?"

Gunnar proceeds to agonize and dither, avoiding the truth at all costs. He advises David to go slow, suggests reasons why the relationship won't work work, even proposes that he dump Sunna, leaving his wife and son baffled by his weird behavior.

The situation turns more serious with subsequent developments until finally the last resort, truth, becomes the only resort. Gunnar's revelation is followed by an uproarious and wholly unexpected twist that leaves both the older couple's marriage and the younger couple's relationship on the rocks.

This is serious film that does not gloss over the all too human flaws of its characters. Humor deftly employed lends sympathy to the portrayals. The plot could have found its way to any of several plausible outcomes. It was not clear which it would be until the very end, which brought a satisfying conclusion to an enjoyable film.

Efterskalv (The Here After) (Sweden 2015) dir. Magnus Van Horn (1983– ) (102 mins) Trailer Magnus Van Horn's first feature film received Guldbagge awards (Sweden's leading film awards) for best film, best director, and best actor in a supporting role (Mats Blomgren as Martin) in 2016. The Here After is uncompromising, intense from beginning to end, and unrelentingly grim. Characters are opaque. There is hardly anything by way of backstory to provide context. It is a good film to have seen although not one I would call a joy to watch.

The story opens with John (singer-songwriter Ulrik Munther) returning home to live with his father, Martin, and his younger brother on the family farm after serving two years in prison. The taciturn Martin is gruff when he tries to correct his sons' manners or bad behavior, sometimes impatient, unsure of himself when he tries to show affection or concern. There is no mention of a mother. The film's sole moment of humor comes at dinner on John's first night back, when his brother asks if they gave him a going away party. No. Did you have any friends? Yes. Did you pick up the soap in the shower? This is as light as it gets.

At the grocery store John spots a girl he knows. Without a word she drops her shopping basket, races down the aisle, and hurls herself upon him. They fall to the floor and she hits him repeatedly while he makes no attempt to defend himself until Martin pulls her off. After this it comes as no surprise that John is met with rejection and hostility when he returns to his old high school even though we are well into the thick of things before we learn John's crime. He strangled his ex-girlfriend in a blind rage that he does not try to explain except to relate that people said it was as if he was sleepwalking. When his one friend, Malin, a girl who moved to the area while he was in prison, asks how it felt, he says he did not feel anything.

He tells Malin that he wanted to come back to his old school because he did not want to be alone. Why he was allowed to return in these circumstances is puzzling. The school principal and John's teachers try unsuccessfully to make his return to school orderly and uneventful, but the students openly and repeatedly defy them.

John is even more taciturn than his father, communicating nothing beyond the precious little he shares with Malin, who is the most sympathetic character in the film. The strain brings whatever inner demons he kept under wraps nearer the surface leading his father to acknowledge that it was a mistake to let him come back home and derailing the budding relationship with Malin.

The film concludes with an emotional explosion, melodramatic, yes, but gripping, with a open-ended final scene that offers no hint of resolution.

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