Like McDonald franchises, Hollywood's McCharacters and McRomantic Comedies are transforming the international cinema of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh into one of smoother edges with Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham) and Richard Curtis (Love Actually). The innovative Swedish cinema of Ingmar Bergman's reign, or defined by the taboo-breaking frank films of the '50s and '60s, or by directors like Lasse Hallström (My Life as a Dog, Chocolat) and Lukas Moodysson (Lilya 4Ever) has given way, notes film critic Jannike Åhlund, to a contemporary Swedish cinema "crammed to bursting point with Swedish nerds and hard-boiled cops."
The four films in this "New Faces" series feel like a status report on a national cinema in which Bergman's philosophical navel-gazing has been replaced by a youth quake culture of Middle Eastern immigrants, graffiti, American movies and rock music. If there is any shared theme in the films, it is the widening generational divide between conservative parents and their children, who have a far more casual approach to sex and work.
Furious peals of Swedish rap open Wings of Glass ( Jan. 23), Iranian director Reza Bagher's first feature about an Iranian teen trying to fit into Swedish society. In Wings, modern Sweden is a hodgepodge of Iranian men's clubs and Iranian-owned video stores stocked with American action films, but one where total acclimation has not been achieved.
The film touches on some heavy issues like rape and female emancipation. But it also suffers from the usual conventions of culture clash films, principally in making its immigrants slightly cartoonish á la My Big Fat Greek Wedding, full of chubby brides and their goofus bridegrooms. Wings has the additional handicap of featuring a not entirely likable protagonist, 18-year-old Nazli (Sara Sommerfeld), a rebellious, self-centered, perpetually complaining teenager, whose Iranian father wants her to marry her flashy, macho cousin. Nazli prefers the non-Muslim company of sensitive, vulnerable Swede Johan (Stellan Skarsgrd's son Alexander).
Family pressure to marry is apparently as powerful for Muslim men as it is for women, though Jalla! Jalla! (which translates to Hurry Up!) makes male anxiety -- from limp dicks to reluctant grooms -- far more comical. The crowd-pleasing Jalla! Jalla! ( Jan. 9) was a popular hit in Sweden and concerns a young, first generation Lebanese immigrant Roro (Fares Fares) and his best friend Mns (Torkel Petersson), who grapples with a malfunctioning penis that has made him into a nervous wreck. Meanwhile, Roro's father and grandmother are anxious for him to marry a nice Lebanese girl and begin producing the four-child quota that seems to be every Swedish immigrant parent's ideal. But like Nazli, Roro has already fallen in love with a pretty blonde Swede (Tuva Novotny).
Jalla! Jalla! is a film in constant motion, moving between the comic misadventures of Roro and Mns, but retaining a lighthearted approach far more effective than Wings of Glass's heavy-handed family melodramatics.
Like the lonely photo developer in One Hour Photo, the hero of the interesting Swedish drama Days Like This ( Jan. 30) is one of life's observers. Leif (Kjell Bergqvist) sells vacuum cleaners door-to-door in a crowded Swedish apartment building where he witnesses the dysfunctional doings inside, from violent middle-management types to a yuppie couple battling over the wife's ticking biological clock.
Awkwardly mixing its comic impulses and a garbled desire to say something grand about alienation between neighbors and lovers, the film at least makes some effort at unconventional storytelling.
The same cannot be said for Invisible ( Jan. 16), which never completely disguises its glossy thriller machinations behind its "serious" half-baked storyline of a creative son defying the wishes of his conservative mother. The most atonal and confusing film on the bill, Invisible begins like some Bret Easton Ellis-style shocker about the violent students and vicious social climbing that afflict an upper-middle class high school. The moodily-lit, MTV-styled hallways are lorded over by a nutcase girl Annelie (Jalla! Jalla!'s Tuva Novotny) who tortures kids for their lunch money in the school bathroom. Things soon take an abrupt Ghost-style turn, when the little blonde sociopath beats a top student, Nicklas (Gustaf Skarsgrd, another son of Stellan), nearly to death. Nicklas then spends the rest of the film as a disembodied spirit goading his mother, police and Annelie to find his still-breathing body where it has been dumped in the woods.
If Invisible and its ilk are any indication, rather than challenging its audience, the contemporary Swedish cinema aspires to the more common goal of entertainment. A film culture that once offered meditations on spiritual and philosophical themes is now content with the heart-pounding effects of the thriller and comedy.