Swedish director Hannes Holm's comedy/drama A Man Called Ove opens with a suicide attempt. Bearing in mind Scandinavian cinema has a reputation for bleak storytelling, audiences would be forgiven for expecting a somewhat dour viewing experience. In fact, the opposite is the case.
Ove Lindahl (played by Rolf Lassgård) is a 59-year-old retiree who is depressed after the death of his wife.
Never having recovered from the humiliation of being unseated as chairman of the neighbourhood association by Rune, his deputy and nemesis, he resolves to make the lives of his neighbours miserable by perniciously upholding every minor community rule and regulation.
Then Parvaneh, the matriarch of a family of Iranian immigrants, enters Ove’s life and slowly coaxes him out of his self-imposed isolation, in this quirky, feel-good comedy, which is the latest film screening as part of the Dubai International Film Festival 365 @ Vox programme.
It was nominated for two Oscars this year – for Foreign Language Film (losing to Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman) and Best Make up and Hairstyling. It has also picked up an armful of awards in its native Sweden.
While the movie is light-hearted, Swedish-Iranian actress Bahar Pars, who plays Parvaneh, says she felt a responsibility given the debate on immigration raging in Europe.
“The main thing I was thinking was how to not make Parveneh so stereotyped as she is in the book [by Fredrik Backman on which the film is based],” says Pars. “She was very simple in the book, which was much more about Ove and everyone else was incidental.
“I wanted to avoid cliché, especially because she’s Iranian, so that was important to me. We had a lot of conversations, from the clothes she’d wear to how she’d speak, body language and so on. I was worried at first [the producers and director] might not listen to me – it’s not like I’m that famous – but they did and I really respected that.”
Pars adds that there is a large community of Iranian actors in Sweden.
“There are all different generations of Iranian actors here,” she says. “But we all share the experience of being in a foreign country and the experience of a degree of stereotyping in terms of the roles we are offered. It is changing, though not that fast, so we do feel a sense of responsibility, not just for Iranians but also for all immigrants, and even for Swedish people who may not have any immigrant friends.”
From this perspective, the cultural experience of living in the region might give UAE audiences a different viewpoint on the film and the issues it raises, compared with audiences in Europe. Pars agrees, but points out that, ultimately, the themes and characters are universal.
“It will be interesting to see how Middle Eastern audiences react,” she says. “Everyone in Sweden knows someone like Ove. He’s very much a cultural thing – but equally that idea of a grumpy old man is universal. My dad said he reminds him of himself, so I think everyone will recognise the character.
“A lot of people really relate to Parvaneh, too. I didn’t realise that till after I’d seen the film and audience reactions and that kind of surprised me.”
Pars admits that the film’s success came as a surprise – it is the highest-grossing domestic film in Swedish cinema history. The Oscar recognition was particularly unexpected. “We were all really surprised by the Oscar nominations,” she says. “It’s basically a commercial feel-good film. Sweden traditionally comes from the [Ingmar] Bergman culture, where cinema has to be very deep and meaningful, and festivals tend to be the same – but something just happened with this. We hadn’t expected it at all.”
Pars clearly enjoyed the Academy Awards experience, even though “it was really cold in there, there was too much air conditioning”, she says with a laugh.
"The logistics were amazing, I've never seen anything like it," she adds. "Everything just worked out perfectly. That's why I liked it when they made the mistake about the best film and announced the wrong one [Moonlight's award was initially wrongly given to La La Land], because everything had just been too perfect. Nothing can be that perfect, so I like it when you see holes in the perfection."
• A Man Called Ove is showing at Vox Cinemas, Mall of the Emirates, Dubai, until June 1. For more details, visit www.uae.voxcinemas.com