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Mild strawberries
Norwegian retirement drama is the Anti-'Up'

O'Horten

Rated:PG-13
Studio:Sony Pictures Classics
Director:Bent Hamer
Cast:Baard Owe, Espen Skjonberg, Ghita Nørby, Bjorn Floberg, Henny Moan
Genre:Comedy
Our Rating:

‘Retired is being twice tired, I’ve thought/First tired of working/Then tired of not,” said poet Richard Armour. Much is made of the glories of retirement – “Travel the world,” they say, “Rediscover your youth!” – while less is made of the (increasingly common) idea that to retire is to begin one’s death. If you’re lucky enough to call it quits at the median retirement age of around 65, then you can still move and think relatively freely, but look around and you’ll find that life has, for the most part, passed you by.

Odd (pronounced “ode”) Horten (Bård Owe) has just driven his last train in snow-covered Norway. He is able of body and mind but alone, so that the best he can hope for is to wander through town like a genial specter haunting familiar spots at night, long after the shops have closed and all but his fellow forgotten souls have gone to bed. He is friendly, warm and curious, but society no longer has much use for him.

Norwegian director Bent Hamer(Factotum) permits Horten all the time in the world to home in on his bearings. O’ Horten moves slowly, sometimes excruciatingly so, but its thematic center is strong: How do you run out the clock of life? Hamer presents Horten with several options. Horten’s beloved mother, Vera, stares out of her assisted-care facility window, surrounded by photographs of herself as a formerly stunning beauty, and does not (or cannot) acknowledge those around her. That’s one way. Horten meets an elderly man sleeping at a bus stop, a retired diplomat or possibly an inventor, who is content to rely on stories of his life thus far to get him through the day. Other characters Horten meets either serve as reminders of youth’s vitality – like the precocious boy of a couple just beginning their lives or some lustful skinny-dippers at the community pool (in both situations, Horten is forced to hide from them, and the commentary is piercing) – or are similar elderly nightcrawlers with no place to go.

O’ Horten is astonishing for its firm and unforgiving narrative. It’s Ikiru without the mission, Wild Strawberries without the road trip. In fact, the film could be seen as the antidote for the overly cutesy Up, a film so drunk on the idea of a senior adventure that it forgets to take basic physics into account.

O’ Horten forgets nothing about the existential pressure of facing the light at the end of the tunnel. (If the film is too literal anywhere, it’s in making Horten a train engineer, a device that provides gorgeous atmosphere and those metaphorical tunnels, but doesn’t bring much else to the table.) Hamer knows that small victories are possible for the pipe-smoking Horten and rightly makes him earn them, but he doesn’t let society off the hook for its casual disregard of a man who served the commuting public for 40 years, downing black coffee and memorizing the number of bridges between cities. (American audiences might recognize the distant look in Horten’s eyes from our own thankless riders, the big-rig drivers.) It’s natural that those with the most life in them dominate life in general, but perhaps we can also make a little room in the pool for the twice tired.

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