Heart of a Lion (Leijonasydan): Goteborg Review

Offensive, but not in good way, this tacky drama is also inept and predictable

Peter Franzen plays neo-Nazi who falls in love with a woman with a mixed-race son in Finnish director Dome Karukosi’s questionable take on blended families

If nothing else, the Finnish film Heart of a Lion (Leijonasydan) deserves a pat on the head for daring to set up one hell of a wacky premise: neo-Nazi Teppo (Peter Franzen) falls for a beautiful blonde Sari (Laura Birn) but then – surprise! – finds out she has a mixed-race son (Yusufa Sidibeh) from an earlier relationship. It sounds on paper like the makings for an insane, blackly-comic update on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) but maybe with an Oi!-punk soundtrack. Alas, Heart is, in fact, a painfully earnest drama, albeit one with thudding comic moments, that still manages to be offensive – but not in a fun way – as well as credibility stretching and tacky. Franzen’s fully committed lead performance represents one of the few redeeming features (young Sidibeh is another) which might partly explain why this ludicrous work from director Dome Karukoskihas secured program slots at both Toronto and Santa Barbara’s film festivals, as well as closer-to-home Goteborg.

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Hunky but none-too-bright, Teppo (Franzen) is perhaps the sexiest skinhead we’ve had on screen since Ryan Gosling in The Believer (2001), although Heart is not worthy to lick the former film’s steel-capped boots. Teppo is the de facto leader of a bunch similarly hate-filled troglodytes, along with borderline psychotic brother Harri (Jasper Paakkonen), who spend their days drinking, playing football, spouting racist bile, and occasionally beating up anyone who’s not pure Finnish.

One night, Teppo hooks up with sexy waitress Sari (Birn, doing her best with a horribly ineptly drawn character) who fails to spot his copious swastika and white-power tattoos because they’re so hot for each other they don’t take the time to fully undress before falling into bed. But in the morning, the penny finally drops for Sari and she boots Teppo out unceremoniously.

But a smitten Teppo doesn’t give up quite that easily, and whatever else his faults, Aleksi Bardy’s screenplay suggests, he must have been such a spectacular lay, even semi-clothed, Sari lets him back in the door some time later. Eventually, clearly disqualifying herself for any mother-of-the-year awards, she introduces him to her 12-year-old son Rhamadhani (Sidibeh) who’s understandably none too-pleased with mom’s new boyfriend, and even less so when Teppo moves in.

When Sari is temporarily hospitalized, Teppo and Rhami start to forge a tentative kind bond at first, but then it all goes pear-shaped again with the arrival of Harri, kicked out of the army for being deranged. The pieces are put in place for a deeply predictable final tussle over loyalties, resulting in - what else? - violence.

If one were to be charitable, it could be argued that the film is simply presenting how white supremacism is now so worryingly common in Finland, it’s become just another kooky youth subculture that lures in alienated, economically deprived numbskulls like Teppo and his associates. That doesn’t excuse, however, the tired melodrama of the plotting, the poor characterizations, or the banal, school-of-dirty realism quality of the craft contributions, especially Jean-Paul Wall’s dire score. Making cheap drama out of racism is one thing, but some things are unforgiveable.

 

Venue: Goteborg Film Festival (Nordic Light; also in Toronto and Santa Barbara film festivals)

Production: Helsinki Filmi Oy in co-production with Film I Vast

Cast: Peter Franzen, Laura Birn, Yusufa Sidibeh, Jasper Paakkonen, Jussi Vatanen

Director: Dome Karukoski

Screenwriter: Aleksi Bardy

Producers: Aleksi Bardy

Executive producers: Milia Haavisto, Martin Persson, Annika Sucksdorff

Art director: Antti Nikkinen

Costume designer: Anna Vilppunen

Editor: Harri Ylonen

Music: Jean-Paul Wall

Sales: The Yellow Affair

No rating, 104 minutes

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