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article imageReview: ‘Heart of a Lion’ is about brave choices Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Sep 14, 2013 in Entertainment
In ‘Heart of a Lion’, a neo-Nazi falls in love with a woman with a black son, causing irreconcilable conflicting feelings for him.
It's difficult to compartmentalize relationships, especially when they exist in near vicinity of each other; eventually they are bound to collide. The line between these groups can vary in severity from just a separation between work and personal lives to an affair that must be kept secret. In Heart of a Lion (a.k.a. Leijonasydän), the division is an innate one that begins to tear the protagonist apart.
Teppo (Peter Franzén) describes himself as patriotic; others would describe him as a racist skinhead. He's never had reason to question his lifestyle thus far, blaming the perpetrators when his choices blow back on his loved ones. Along with his brethren, Teppo aggressively advocates for a white Finland by intimidating and beating up people of colour. But meeting and falling in love with Sari (Laura Birn) changes his life because she has a mixed-race son. Teppo tries to keep a foot in each life, but his brother Harri (Jasper Pääkkönen) repeatedly demonstrates the impossibility of this dream.
One of the more interesting aspects of this story is that the focus is not on Teppo's search for redemption. While he feels guilty about elements of his past and acts recently committed, he never begs for forgiveness. Instead, it is about Teppo's evolution as a person as he outgrows the violence that dominated much of his life. To earn the respect of the people he's come to love and taken as his family, Teppo becomes a different man.
This film had the possibility of being very explosive and there are definitely moments of upsetting hostility. The supremacist group is led by Teppo on a number of occasions to hurt and frighten people they deem unwelcome. As the narrative unfolds, this behavior is increasingly juxtaposed with a kind, caring family man willing to do anything to protect and keep his home. When Teppo attempts to break down the wall separating his radically opposing lifestyles, his good heart and naiveté shine through.
The characters in this film required a great deal of commitment from the actors as they took on personality traits they couldn't necessarily connect with off-screen. For Birn, she struggled with a mother's decision to pursue a relationship with a man wired to hate her son. Franzén and Pääkkönen had the more difficult task of embodying the deep-rooted hate these groups possess. A former neo-Nazi member consulted on the film to help them get into their roles and understand the mindset; this was evidently beneficial as both men are incredibly convincing. Franzén, in particular, is able to mimic the body language of his counterpart who has experienced this emotional transition.
The title refers to Finland’s coat of arms, which all members of Teppo’s gang have tattooed on their chests over their heart. But it carries the dual meaning of his courage in choosing a new life that antagonizes those closest to him.
Heart of a Lion is screening as part of the Contemporary World Cinema programme during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which runs September 5 to 15.
Director: Dome Karukoski
Starring: Peter Franzén, Laura Birn and Jasper Pääkkönen
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