Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Dome Karukoski
Screenplay: Aleksi Bardy
Runtime: 104 minutes
Cast: Peter Franzén, Laura Birn, Yusufa Sidibeh, Jasper Pääkkönen.
Plot: Recently released neo-Nazi Teppo struggles to find a job, instead finding waitress Sari. Initially seduced by Teppo, Sari becomes horrified by his affiliations and refuses to see him again. This is not to last, as Teppo pursues her doggedly – overcoming his feelings to bond with her mixed race son Rhamadhani. But all is not well with Teppo’s former friends, and his own integration into step-fatherhood does not go smoothly.
Review: Heart of a Lion is a deeply confronting film, inviting sympathy and understanding for a group of individuals who display a repulsive lack of sympathy and understanding. There are few groups who are rightfully reviled as much today as neo-Nazis; and director Dome Karukoski’s decision to tackle these issues through a protagonist who is still active within this group is a brave choice. That the script, written by Aleksi Bardy, is skilfully executed with only a few minor missteps transforms a potential disaster into an outstanding film. Many will be tempted to liken Heart of a Lion to films such as American History X; but the film is surprising in the use it makes of its many themes. At points the film is hard to watch; but extremely worthwhile.
At the core of Heart of a Lion is not an interrogation of race, although that is obviously an element, but an interrogation of masculinity and what it means to belong. The film transcends the potential sensationalisation of its subject matter, in an attempt to dissect the angry heart that beats within movements such as these (which are predominantly made up of men).
Newly released from prison, for reasons the film is slow to disclose, protagonist Teppo (Peter Franzén) encounters waitress Sari (Laura Birn) in an innocent met-cute incident. Sari is charmed enough to take Teppo home and spend the night with him; but horrified in the morning when uncovering his neo-Nazi tattoos. Throughout the film, Teppo exudes the sense that he spends his life waiting for the other shoe to drop and is undeterred by Sari’s reproaches. Through a series of attempts, Teppo tries to get close and is eventually readmitted into Sari’s affections. But Sari has a mixed race child, Rhamadhani (Yusufa Sidibeh), who is understandably unenthusiastic to have a neo-Nazi in his and his mother’s life. Heart of a Lion becomes a story primarily about their relationship; and as their acceptance of each other grows, Teppo’s distance from his former friends increases. The two worlds quickly collide, with serious consequences.
That doesn’t sound like much on the face of it; but what makes the film outstanding is the manner in which those characters, and their relationships, are challenged and developed. Peter Franzén, as Teppo, exudes charisma and likeability even as his actions quickly alienate the audience. The quickness with which the relationship of Teppo and Rhamadhani develops is slightly undersold; but one gets the impression that Karukoski condenses the timeframes and a few of the difficulties within the film in order to get directly to an exploration of the consequences of their relationship. These consequences are deep, significant, and powerfully explored – they ask what forms of manhood are, and why individuals attach their personal sense of identity to them.
Teppo himself is the alpha male, full of violence and initially clear on who should be the target of it. He is the leader of their neo-Nazi gang, dominating his fellow members and brother Harri (Jasper Pääkkönen). Several daring initial scenes portray how the self-reinforcing nature of the group – the hyper-masculinity, and the self righteous anger – quickly get out of hand, and find their outlet on innocent victims. It is hard not to read this as an indictment of certain forms of masculinity and being-with-men (to misappropriate Heidegger); the casual guy talk among team members that devolves, assisted by alcohol, into gangbangs and rape. Or the brinkmanship that leads to violence and risky behaviour, or the banter that starts as complaint and turns into action. The film does not outrightly condemn these characters, but it doesn’t flinch from portraying their behaviour – asking the audience to judge, but also more importantly to comprehend. Every man will have experienced, at some point in their lives, a male group situation getting out of hand; feeling disgusted and yet dragged along in an out-of-control roller-coaster. Heart of a Lion gets to the core of that experience in its most extreme form, and challenges its audience to act otherwise in the face of that pressure.
The film is also unsparing of its characters who are “in the right;” particularly when dealing with the issues of Rhamadhani, who is bullied at school. Teppo, struck by his defencelessness, trains him in violence and encourages him to adopt those means – stepping in to defend Rhamadhani when he witnesses the bullying. The fathers of the bullies are equally displeased, and quickly attempt intimidation and violence in their quest to extract “justice” from Teppo; their own hypocrisy fatally exposed alongside Teppo’s. The film seems to suggest that even the most mature male can succumb to the dark side of the group mentality; and that certain feelings, such as an inflated sense of protectiveness, have poisoned roots. This forms one of the significant and important insights of the film; that no form of anger, no matter how justified, leads to any good place.
The film is also adept at developing a relationship between Teppo and his brother Harri, introducing the complication of Rhamadhani. Pääkkönen plays the character of Harri powerfully; bringing forth his irrational hatred of the black boy, but also mixing in a sort of jealousy and insecurity of the younger brother. Harri does some abominable things throughout the film; but still ultimately comes to protect and fight for his brother. Seeing another kid, bullied and vulnerable, seems to break something in his relationship with Teppo; who mercilessly disciplines his little brother, in another confronting but genuine scene. Teppo too is finally changed, walking away from his friends when confronted with true, utter vulnerability and his own rage at that vulnerability. The film draws out a moment reminiscent of Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies – where an angry mob, rampaging through a hospital, confronts a naked old man standing helplessly in the showers and is suddenly dispersed through a confrontation with the image of their own fragility. Heart of a Lion gets to the insight brilliantly; contrasting the feeling of invulnerability that the group engenders with the true, sudden realisation of our own fragility and limitations. This radical, existential empathy can have a potent effect and does so within the film; sadly, and in reality, without these forms of representation, it can also fail.
Some of the business of the script could have been better dealt with; among others, a certain pair of grenades, established in the first act, come to mind. While they lead into important discussions, they could have been more elegantly executed.
Heart of a Lion touches on the essential nature of what film is as a certain form of art. It can become a medium to explore other modes of being, to offer audiences the opportunity to shift perspective and develop understanding and empathy – even if that understanding is of things that repulse, or horrify. That understanding is a powerful tool in cutting those roots of anger that Heart of a Lion so powerfully portrays.
Rating: Four stars.