Josef Fares in timely take on violence

Josef Fares's film Leo, which premieres on Friday, is a timely exploration of how we react to violence. But, says Charlotte West, the script is not all it could be.

There are certain times in a guy’s life when everything changes – and turning thirty is one of them. And life changes dramatically for Leo, the protagonist of Swedish director Josef Fares’ new film, on the evening of his thirtieth birthday.

Leo premieres in Sweden on Friday, 30th November, although three screenings during the Stockholm Film Festival earlier this month also offered viewers a sneak peak. This drama is a far cry from Fares’ previous films, which include comedies such as Jalla! Jalla! (2000) and Kopps (2003).

On the way home from his birthday party, Leo – played by actor Leonard Terfelt – and his girlfriend Amanda are the victims of random violence. When Leo wakes up in the hospital, he finds out that Amanda hasn’t survived the attack.

The film follows him as his life spins out of control and he becomes consumed with revenge. His friends Shahab (played by Shahab Salehi) and Josef (played by Fares himself in his debut as an actor) are drawn into Leo’s downward spiral. The three men ultimately end up paying a higher price for their loyalty than any one them could have anticipated.

Fares has said he wants the film “to ask what it is to be a man.”

“What does it mean, to be a loyal friend? Is it – as I think many young people feel – that in such an extreme situation as this, to stand by him and kill for him?”

Leo tackles the question of unprovoked violence and how society programmes us – and men in particular – to respond. “It is, as the father says in the movie ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right.’ On a purely intellectual level, Leo understands this…He knows that revenge won’t help him. But he is unable to follow his intellect…Revenge chases him, eats him up from the inside out,” said Fares.

The final movie is a collaborative effort between Fares, Terfelt and Salehi and the real-life friendship between the three men permeates the script. “When I say that this film has been a collaboration, I really mean it. When I had written three, four pages, I sat down with Leonard and Shahab and asked, ‘What do you guys think about this?’” Fares said.

“I wanted to create a realistic tone as possible…That’s one of the reasons we use our real names,” Fares said.

Leo is much darker than its predecessors. Fares saw Leo as a chance to do something different after his first three feature films, although he said that the script became much more serious than he had originally intended.

Fares’ previous movies are quite lighthearted, focusing on comedic value as much as on social commentary. Jalla! Jalla! tells the story of an arranged marriage that was not meant to be, while the police officers in Kopps stay in business by committing petty crimes in their small town. His 2005 film, Zozo, is a bit more serious, follows a Lebanese boy from war-ravaged Beruit to his new life in Sweden, very much like Fares’ own story.

The personal chemistry between the actors in Leo is fantastic, but in the second half of the movie, the storyline starts to crumble. Fares himself said that at some point the script began to take on a life of its own; the end result is a plot with several gaps. This may be because the audience is drawn into Leo’s world, seeing events through his eyes, but you are left with a feeling of unsettling incredulity.

The movies captures the zeitgeist, however, with anti-violence rallies held in major Swedish cities last month after a brutal assault that resulted in the death of a 16-year-old boy. It’s an interesting exploration of violence and how we react to it. As a social commentary, Leo succeeds, but the cinematographic experience leaves a bit to be desired.