2004Director: Mikael Håfström
Cast: Andreas Wilson, Henrik Lundström, Gustaf Skarsgård
never had the privilege of attending a private boarding school; condemned to a life of mediocrity through public education, I remain unfamiliar with the hierarchy of such institutions. In a public school, we had our own pecking order established, but despite all the hardships us outcasts had to endure, we were able to bear it and move on with our lives.
What I’ve learned from Mikael Håfström’s film Evil, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the 2004 Academy Awards, is that either his entire scenario is absurdly improbable or I would have been eaten alive in a boarding school. The teacher’s in public schools may turn a blind eye to some of the oppressive circumstances imposed upon the more introverted or eccentric students, but I’d like to think that had the student council head pummeled a student to the point of splattering blood on the walls of the school cafeteria, the law, or at the very least, the administration would get involved.
Since the subject of Håfström’s film concerns the nature of evil, I find it pertinent to speak first of the “good” contained within the film. To begin with, the cinematography by Peter Morkrosinski achieves a beauty nothing short of sublime, combined with impressive direction on the part of Håfström. Håfström, in particular, demonstrates a brilliant grasp of the mise en scène, at times managing to isolate elements of the story within a single shot that would take lesser directors numerous scenes to convey (you know, the type of direction that made Welles so famous).
Beyond that, what good remains in the film reveals itself through isolated scenes and individual moments, while as a whole, nothing else worthwhile materializes. So, without further adieu, let us move on to the “evil” of the film, but first allow us to define our terms here. By “evil,” I mean the evil that allowed this strong direction and beautiful photography to be bludgeoned to death by a stale screenplay; one that only scratches the surface of human evil and that which spawns it, only to sidestep the difficulty of constructing a dialectic portrayal of its subject in favor of a mechanical tale of redemption in the face of appalling malice.
The story concerns Erik Ponti (Andreas Wilson), a ruthless bully whose heedless aggression serves as a release from the abusive and loveless relationship with his stepfather. In a terribly overacted scene, we witness how his continued disobedience gets him expelled from his current school. This forces his mother, too passive to speak out against her husband’s cruelty, to come up with the money to send him to a private school. Once Erik arrives at this new institution, he finds it populated by an elite breed of clever young fascists, embodied by a Gestapo-like student council. During a tour of the campus conducted by the head of the council, Otto Silverhielm (Gustaf Skarsgård), the school rules are made clear: the council is in charge of policing the other students and administering punishments as they see fit. If a student hits a member of the student council, said student receives an automatic expulsion. Resistant to such a system, Erik singles himself out as a target for abuse. Yet, fearing that expulsion would break his mother’s heart, he must face his brutal adversaries with passive resistance.
What could have been a clever part of the story—positioning a supposedly deplorable character in a sympathetic role—Håfström ignores and pushes to the background. Instead, he settles for yet another tale of a nonconformist rising up against an unjust, tyrannical organization. And for a film whose subject should focus on evil (as the title suggests) it does a pretty poor job of depicting it with any subtlety. Ponti’s stepfather, in particular, is so clearly transplanted from Bergman that it becomes all the more pathetic when we see him reduced to a mechanical tool of the screenplay rather than an actual human being. Even the stepfather in Fanny and Alexander aroused more sympathy precisely because Bergman saw him first as human before he labeled him a villain. And although Gustaf Skarsgård is perfectly cast as the towering, gangly leader of the council, his role is frightfully underused here, resulting in a character that behaves maliciously simply because that’s what the film requires of him.
Curiously, Håfström ends his film with a freeze frame that almost directly quotes the final shot in The 400 Blows. Given the similar plight between Erik and Antoine, I can understand what motivated Håfström to utilize it. However, Truffaut earned his right to employ a freeze frame by constructing a story in which his hero’s future remains uncertain, spilling over beyond the end of the film. Erik’s fate, on the other hand, remains clear to us by Evil’s conclusion. Håfström traps it within a self-contained story, one that cannot stretch beyond the boundaries of the film’s length, and, sadly, the boundaries of that darkened theater from which the viewer discards it from their mind upon exiting.