The best Swedish movie of 2011
I’ve heard other people admitting that they automatically treat foreign movies better and I think that might be the case with me as well.
I’m not quite sure why that is. It could be a matter of status. Being an expert in French cinema has a better sound to it than being a fan of Swedish film (at least where I live, I assume loving Swedish movies is exotic in the US.)
It could also be that it’s much easier to recognize false tones and bad acting in your native tongue than to spot when someone speaks unnatural in French.
I’ve gone as far as to claim that last year was a crappy year for Swedish cinema and then I pointed everyone to the four Norwegian movies I had watched, which all had been way better than anything I’d seen from Sweden.
But all of this was before I watched Ruben Östlund’s latest film Play. If I had watched it when it still played in the theatres, I would have been slower to dismiss. Because Play is excellent and I don’t even need to add “for being Swedish”. It’s excellent in its own right.
Based on a true story
I’ll tell you right away that it’s an uncomfortable movie in the same way as some of Mike Leigh’s movies make my stomach hurt It shows the life of people who are less fortunate than me; it pictures a world that I’m perfectly aware of exists, but which I usually successfully forget about since I look in a different direction, don’t take those buses, don’t spend time on those bus stops or concrete grounds. He holds up this mirror that I can’t look away from and I see this ugly world, including my own ugly behavior – not messing with other people’s business if I can avoid it.
The film is based on a true story, a series of robberies in Gothenburg, where a group of boys aged 12-14 for years robbed other children of their cell phones and other belongings. Rather than using physical violence, they used role-play and gang rhetoric in their bullying.
In very long and slow takings we get to observe those events. We see how the bullies operate, we see how it plays out to the victims and above all we notice how passive people who watch this are. We see all those adults doing close to nothing to intervene and we’re forced to ask ourselves: what would I do in that situation? Would I dare to take on those bullying guys or would I let them go away with it, lying to myself that “boys will be boys and they’re just a bit noisy”?
The film has stirred up a huge debate in Sweden, where some people have accused the film for being racist based on that all the robbers are colored and most of the victims are white. After watching the film I think the bashing is ridiculous, especially considering that it’s based on real events. Is it the responsibility of a filmmaker to whitewash reality? If anything, Östlund is aiming for the opposite, to question how we look at people with a different skin color, “the others”, and how this might have played in when the grown-ups chose not to do anything about what they saw right in front of them.
What makes Play so convincing and gripping is that it feels all natural. The camera is just a silent observer. It’s like a butterfly on the wall, which freezes in one position in order not to reveal itself. The camera is often locked in a certain direction for long stretched and we see the main characters walking in and out of the picture. Sometimes the most important events take place in one of the corners or even out of reach of the camera. We don’t hear all that is said in the conversations; sometimes we only capture fragments of it. This in combination with very good child actors makes for a movie that most of the time feels like a documentary.
It was only when I watched the about-the-making-of film in the extras that I could get back to normal. I was relieved to see that the actors who played those miserable boys were just actors. They were all friends – the bullies and the victims – and we could see them laughing and joking with each other between the takings.
But the questions still linger. If I saw some of the events taking place on a bus, would I have the guts to intervene, putting myself at risk? And what if it was my own child who had been robbed of her cell phone and there was a chance I could figure out who had done it, would I act on it? And would I be right or wrong to do so?
One thing I know though: If you’d only going to watch one film from Sweden from 2011, I recommend it to be this one.
Play (Ruben Östlund, SWE 2011) My rating: 4,5/5