The Mindful Bard
A Somewhat Gentle Man
Volume 21 Issue 22 2013-06-14
Film: A Somewhat Gentle Man (2010)
Director: Hans Petter Moland
Cast: Stellan Skarsgård, Bjørn Floberg, Gard B. Eidsvold, Jorunn Kjellsby, Jannike Kruse, Aksel Hennie
Genre: Art House/International/Comedy
Honour Among Thieves (in a Manner of Speaking)
“Slowly and with suffering, I have reconquered through slavery my feeling of the dignity of being human, a feeling that this time did not reside in anything external, and was always accompanied by the consciousness that I had no right to anything, that each instant free from suffering and humiliations was to be received as a grace, as the simple result of favorable luck.”
Ulrik leaves a 12-year prison stint with a few uplifting words from the warden and a look of resolve. He walks into the arms of his former crime boss and a long-anticipated assignment to wipe out the rat that got him arrested. He owes this to his boss because the man has been—allegedly—supporting his wife and son for him while he’s been in jail and because the boss demands vengeance on the man who put away his best henchman.
Like most felons, Ulrik and his partners in crime have a rigid moral code: might makes right, informants and wife-beaters deserve to die, and you broke it, you bought it.
When you start watching it you wonder why this film is billed as a comedy. The comedic segments are not clearly marked off as such with the kinds of cues we’ve come to expect of American films, a lack which somehow renders the humour even more sardonic. For example, over and again we find the aging Ulrik in the throes of a loveless and quite bestial carnal act with some needy but emotionally closed women, one of whom brays like a she-ass in heat. There’s no lead-in, no anticipatory tenor sax—it just happens.
To some extent Ulrik is a kind of avatar of divine justice, which in the film world means the things the viewer— pacifist or no—would like to see happen to the wicked. But this is one of the purposes of film—to allow us to witness scenes of brutality we openly condemn but secretly long for.
There is, for example, a hilarious scene in which the receptionist at the garage where Ulrik works receives a visit from her abusive ex-husband. Ulrik drags him outside, gently informs him that a man must never hit a child or a woman, and proceeds to pound the snot out of him.
He then quietly instructs the wife-beater to hail himself a cab and head for the hospital, where he will report that he fell down the stairs. The man stumbles submissively out to the road— bleeding, swinging a broken arm—and bleats, “Taxi!” repeatedly as cabs speed past him, refusing to slow down for such a sorry spectacle.
Is it really so wrong to laugh helplessly at scenes like this?
A couple of things have softened and humanized Ulrik on his hero’s journey: a kindly Sven has decided to hire him as a mechanic, enabling him to make an honest living and to practice being responsible, and his son’s girlfriend is pregnant.
He’s clearly making an effort to consciously open himself to grace, which comes flooding in on him just as M. Scott Peck said it would. The women in his life start becoming warmer and more loving and romantic, and Ulrik himself starts feeling good about life, smiling more, dressing better, being sweet to people, and seeking opportunities to do good.
But repentance doesn’t always hasten forgiveness, and when forgiveness doesn’t come one sometimes feels sorely compelled to seek consolation in the very sins of which one has repented.
In typical ex-con stories the former inmate makes an effort, gets a couple of second chances, and eventually gets shot down and ends up back in the clink. This one has the same up and down quality but there’s a surprisingly atypical ending that makes it worthy of the comedy category, in the classical as well as the humorous sense.
This is truly a film of calibre, with a muted-tone-sparse-dialogue aesthetic that puts it up there with some of the Coen Brothers’ dark comedies. With all the Patsy Kline on the radio, ugly industrial architecture, and meat and potatoes, it will even remind North Americans of home.
A Somewhat Gentle Man fulfills six of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing: 1) it is authentic, original, and delightful; 2) it is about attainment of the true self; 3) it displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering; 4) it gives me tools of compassion, enabling me to respond with compassion and efficacy to the suffering around me; 5) it renews my enthusiasm for positive social action; and 6) it makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomenon, making living a unique opportunity.
Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.
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