First Features From Sweden

Alan Pavelin

Talking Pictures alias






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Reviewers of modern Swedish films still sometimes comment along the lines that "this is light-years away from Ingmar Bergman", as if existential angst should be expected to be the hallmark of all cinema from that country. In truth Bergman was something of a one-off, and if his corpus of work had never existed we would not, I think, particularly associate the Swedes with the anguished characters who populate his best-known films and those of derivatives such as Liv Ullman’s recent Faithless.

Those of us who read about current cinema (I don’t mean the gossip or the hype about whatever the week’s pointless big-budget release happens to be) have read of, and perhaps seen, the work of directors like Roy Andersson (Songs from the Second Floor) and Lukas Moodysson (Show Me Love, Together). However, two virtually unknown Swedish directors have been favoured with a British Film Institute distribution for their first features, both made in 2000, both coincidentally with a major character called Ali, and it is these which I wish to discuss.

Image courtesy of BFI Exhibition.The New Country, which was incidentally co-written by Moodysson, is a social-issues road movie directed with gusto by Geir Hansteen Jorgensen and which seriously questions Sweden’s traditional image of a liberal society. The central characters are two illegal immigrants, the middle-aged Iranian Mammoud, and the African teenager Ali who dreams of winning an Olympic gold medal for Sweden. After escaping from a police raid on the home of a woman whose mission in life is to house refugees, Mammoud and Ali meet up with Louise, an ageing Swedish beauty queen who herself wants to escape from a porn photographer, and together they encounter a succession of bizarre characters, including a gang of racists and an elderly married couple with a shared unhealthy interest in young black boys. The film’s moving finale leaves only Louise clearly unhappy.

Image courtesy of BFI Exhibition.

At 128 minutes The New Country is perhaps half-an-hour too long; some of the incidents seem to serve little purpose, while the fast-cutting pop-video-style camerawork is not to my taste. It is well-acted, particularly by Mike Almayehu as Ali. The film is bitingly critical of the Swedish police attitudes towards asylum-seekers, and if this portrayal is anything near the truth we shall all have to revise our stereotypical ideas about that society.

Image courtesy of BFI Exhibition.Much more satisfying in my view, indeed quite outstanding, is Before the Storm, directed by Reza Parsa, who originally hails from Iran but has lived in Sweden for many years. A tightly-plotted thriller which shows how people can be trapped by their own past actions, the central character is the Arab taxi-driver Ali, who has fully adapted to Swedish life, acquiring along the way a Swedish wife Clara and two daughters. Gradually we learn that he was once a terrorist in his original (unnamed) country, something he has been trying to forget. Meanwhile 12-year-old Leo, son of a local policewoman, also does something he wants to forget, as a result of suffering at the hands of the school bully and following a conversation with Ali. When Ali meets up with his past the two find themselves in their parallel nightmarish situations, and with a plot involving a local arms manufacturer and his invalid father the film builds up nicely to an almost Hitchcockian suspense climax. The open ending leaves Ali, sitting in church after his daughter’s confirmation, daydreaming about what might have been, and what might indeed be in the days to come.Image courtesy of BFI Exhibition.

Image courtesy of BFI Exhibition.The acting is excellent throughout, and I would particularly commend Emil Odepark as the boy Leo, with his remarkable resemblance to the young Bertil Guve who played the central character in Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. Parsa’s direction is unshowy and utterly mature for a man still in his early 30s. The plot is slightly farfetched in parts, relying on coincidence and on the unlikelihood that Clara has never suspected her husband’s violent past. The film need not be seen as specific to Sweden, and could have been set in any European country. It deservedly won the Grand Jury prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival. Before the Storm could easily benefit from a wider distribution than Swedish films are normally granted.
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