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A successful international conductor suddenly interrupts his career and returns alone to his childhood village in Norrland, in the far north of Sweden.It doesn't take long before he is asked to come and listen to the fragment of a church choir, which practises every Thursday in the parish hall. Just come along and give a little bit of good advice. He can't say no, and from that moment, nothing in the village is the same again. The choir develops and grows. He makes both friends and enemies. And he finds love. Written by
Kay Pollak's 2004 heart-warmer Så som i himmelen/ As it is in Heaven contains every stereotype of Swedish humanity and inhumanity yet manages to be a crowd-pleaser. It contains plenty of ammunition for cynical critics, continuity error-spotters and for saccharine-debunkers, yet manages to depict the colours of life in a small community evocatively. The film also runs the gamut of proverbial messages about 'finding one's own voice' and 'just doing it despite one's fear', without completely removing the lump from the throats of the cynics.
Its success as a crowd pleaser comes from two facts. Firstly, small films about strangers bringing new life to rural Christian communities provide plenty of scope for the exposure of hypocrisy while at the same time allowing repressed characters to break out of their hairshirts. The same year and with a similarly Swedish breeze, The Queen of Sheba's Pearls did it, and Babette's Feast also comes to mind. Secondly, any film about small communities taking on the whole wide world will strike a human chord in our increasingly individual/self- focused and impersonalized world. This film's structural similarity with the likes of The Full Monty, Brassed Off, Calendar Girls and On a Clear Day shows its indebtedness to the formula. But it is a formula with life left in it yet, and this seems to be because people need positive- message films that evoke a sense of community almost in spite of themselves.
The stranger is burned-out maestro Daniel Daréus on a quest for self-rediscovery. The town he visits, or rather revisits, is, unbeknownst to the townsfolk, the place of his childhood. He was bullied mercilessly by classmates here, supposedly because he was a sensitive musician without aspiration to drive a truck. Here, he takes the job of cantor/choirmaster, despite the usual suspicions of artists and outsiders. The place is, of course, populated by a wide range of recognizable types whose character arcs can be predicted: the broken-hearted, fair-haired girl so beautiful she nearly glows; the cellphone-ringing local businessman; the woman whose beauty is lost amidst domestic abuse; the steely pastor and his less austere wife, who at first seem right out of Ingmar Bergman. Also present: jealous, uptight spinster (Siv) (check); geriatric whose soul still sings (check); elderly couple who may have repressed desires for each other since kindergarten (check); obese person whose function is to point out we should not laugh and say 'fatty' (check); intellectually handicapped boy who proves able to sing a good 'A' (check).
Pollak's film is not all warm fuzzies, however. It diverts from the 'let's put on a show despite setbacks and moral opposition' sub-genre. It contains violence and an ending that might well be a metaphor for dying after achieving creative nirvana. The violence of the film is mostly a function of male anger and repression, but in never delves deeply into why the school bully who grows up into a wife beater is like this. Similarly, the small town Pastor so closely adheres to the moralistic, black-wearing super-Protestant stereotype, that his secret indulgence in girlie magazines is hardly surprising. His repressions and hypocrisies are just there, dangling unrelated to psychological reality. Perhaps the unexplained photograph of a young boy, a lost son perhaps, glimpsed once over his shoulder, holds the secret.
Perhaps these holes are functions of the editing, like several inconsistencies and continuity glitches that can be spotted, such as Siv's unexplained reappearance in the choir (twice) after moralistic outbursts. In fact none of the hitches in the film last very long and all seem resolved within a scene. Apart from in some awkward love scenes, the film's 127 minutes seldom drag, but there is a feeling that things may have been left on the cutting room floor.
The film remains solid three-star-fare despite the holes that can be picked in it. This is simply because in a world of technology-focused flicks and materialistic self-seeking, any glimpse of human community is, deep down, welcome for anyone, even the cynical.
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