A late-’50s coming-of-age picture with a blackly comic edge and filigree emotions, “The Other Side of Sunday” is too small to make much impact theatrically outside Scandinavia but is a quality item that should rack up sales to Eurowebs and other connoisseur outlets. Toplined with a wonderfully suggestive performance from newcomer Marie Theisen, as a quietly rebellious teen, the movie is the best so far from director Berit Nesheim, who made a mark four years ago with another rites-of-passager, “Frida — Straight From the Heart.” Pic is Norway’s submission for the foreign-language Oscar.
The eldest daughter of a conservative rural priest (Bjorn Sundquist), Maria (Theisen) is a loner who secretly reads the Song of Solomon for its sexy bits and in her private thoughts criticizes the village’s other women for their shapeless bodies and joyless attitudes. Dutifully attending church every Sunday, she calculates that she’ll have spent 640 hours sitting on the wooden pew by the time of her confirmation.
Made fun of at school, where the boys taunt her with a giant condom, and given to solitary walks in the forest, she finds a common spirit in Mrs. Tunheim (Hildegunn Riise), verger at her father’s church, who urges her to think for herself and not deny life’s physical side. But while other girls are getting it on with boys and spending time in “sinful” coffee bars, Maria finds it difficult to put her anarchic thoughts into practice thanks to her rigid upbringing. The chance discovery of her father’s secret, plus an unexpected suicide in the community, give her the courage finally to break free.
There’s an almost “Heathers”-like quality to the subversive thoughts bubbling away beneath the surface of Maria’s outwardly respectable front, but co-writer/director Nesheim resists the temptation to go for any kind of outwardly anarchic comedy. Instead, it’s a film that spins on the smallest changes in emotional temperature as Maria, almost unknowingly, slowly works her way toward her own solution, guided by Mrs. Tunheim’s exhortation to “be proud and stubborn in the name of honesty.”
Like the rebellious grace notes that pepper the pic, Maria’s final decision becomes a small event invested with major emotion, thanks to the restraint of Nesheim’s helming and Theisen’s remarkable playing. With looks that can separately suggest dreamy innocence, kittenish sexuality and almost demonic possession, the 16-year-old neophyte is perfectly cast in the difficult central role. Playing by the other kids is on the button, and Riise is excellent as the proto-rebel Mrs. Tunheim.
Technically, the film is top-drawer, and the soundtrack makes emotive use of a repeated extract from the Andante of Bruckner’s Second Symphony.