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Bard Owe as Odd Horten.

© John Christian Rosenlund

3 out of 4 stars



  • Written, directed and produced by Bent Hamer
  • Starring Bard Owe, Ghita Norby, Espen Skjonberg and Henny Moan
  • Classification: PG

His entire adult life, Odd Horten has been driving a train down the same tracks, day after day after month after year. He's been doing it so long, in fact, that he has become part of the machinery. The engineer draws on a pipe and as the train moves, gaining speed, smoke rises from above his shoulder.

That last bit of whimsy comes courtesy of Norwegian writer-director Bent Hamer ( Kitchen Stories ), a filmmaker with a deadpan sense of humour and a gift for metaphor.

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In his latest, Hamer puts his lead character, known as O'Horten, in a truly worrisome predicament: He has reached 67 - retirement age. A lifelong bachelor, he has nothing except a noisy parakeet, a silent mother in a nursing home, and his soon-to-expire job.

What can he do? O'Horten (Bard Owe) can no more change than a train can veer off its tracks.

But wait. In the film's poetically rendered credit sequence, we watch O'Horten negotiate the checkpoints of his morning - putting on his uniform, drawing a veil over the parakeet's cage, taking a streetcar to the train station, starting the train engine, lighting his pipe; check-check-check-check-check.

And then something wonderful happens: His train flies into a dark tunnel and when it reappears we are borne aloft, soaring over a wide valley draped in luminous, achingly beautiful, blue-white snow. Later, O'Horten visits his mother. She is silent, but happy, perhaps because she can see her old skis there against the wall, look outside at winter and remember.

O'Horten's mother was a ski-jumper, we learn. Odd, sighing, reports to an acquaintance that he never gave it a try, much to his mom's disappointment.

Much later in the film, the other ski will drop. But before it does, O'Horten will suffer a variety of indignities: He gets locked out of his own retirement party, loses his galoshes in a swimming-pool change room and is forced to negotiate icy streets on a woman's high-heeled boots. It's even slippery indoors in Odd's world. At one point, a fridge icemaker breaks down, scattering a thousand potential pratfalls in front of and around the jobless engineer.

Filmmaker Hamer isn't being cruel here. He's trying to tell us that conquering the ridiculous is one of life's necessary joys. His film is a series of mostly silent comic blackout sketches. And there is a temptation to compare his work to that of Jacques Tati, the French master of film pantomime. Except that Hamer is funnier and more interested in real human dilemma.

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Lucky for Hamer, then, that he found Bard Owe to play O'Horten. The veteran Norwegian film and theatre performer is an actor with great passive dignity and physical grace. In a better entertainment world, Owe would have won a special Buster Keaton Great Stoneface award at last year's Academy Awards.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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