Highly sentimental but never sappy, “Home for Christmas” is cause for celebration. Norwegian writer-director Bent Hamer’s trademark deadpan humor (as in “Eggs” and “O’Horten”) gets a lively boost from the pic’s emotive ensemble, as a multiplicity of steadfast characters in snowy Skogli manages to transcend holiday-season loneliness, anxiety and depression. Hamer’s vignette style appears at once loose and assured, building toward a quiet epiphany that viewers of any religious persuasion can appreciate. Given the proper seasonal push in territories far and wide, the crowd-pleasing “Home” could well hit auds where they live.
Hamer’s harrowing first scenes hardly prep the viewer for the sweetness that follows. The pic (based on Norwegian author Levi Henriksen’s “Only Soft Presents Under the Tree”) opens in the former Yugoslavia, with a young boy named Goran (Arianit Berisha) dragging a Christmas spruce through a vacant factory yard and getting caught in a sniper’s crosshairs. From there, the film embarks on its winding path to peace.
In small-town Skogli on Christmas Eve, two kids (Sarah Bintu Sakor, Morten Ilseng Risnes) meet cute while window-shopping. Seen from above, a middle-aged couple (Tomas Norstrom, Nina Andresen-Borud) hits the skins with wild abandon, even though the man insists he can’t leave his wife. An old man (Joachim Calmeyer) at home struggles to carry a table downstairs. Scruffy Paul (Trond Fausa Aurvag) complains to his doctor, Knut (Fridtjov Saheim), that his wife (Kristine Rui Slettebakken) has changed the locks on their door and taken up with another man (Kyrre Haugen Sydness).
Thrown off a train, a grizzled “wino” (Reidar Sorensen) stumbles upon friendly Johanne (Ingunn Beate Oyen), who sells Christmas trees in a wintry trailer park. Making house calls, Knut is held at knifepoint in his car by a Serbian man (Igor Necemer), who’s desperate to get medical attention for his pregnant wife (Nina Zanjani), an illegal immigrant from Albania.
Whether, how and when Hamer’s discrete stories will intersect gives the pic a measure of intrigue even beyond the sketches’ own considerable charms. Meantime, everyone soldiers on amid darkly comical end-of-year stressors, and the film gradually becomes gentler, with unexpected companionship and semi-random acts of kindness epitomizing the holiday spirit.
As in much of Hamer’s past work, the expressive acting, often without words, tenderly harks back to that of silent cinema. Shot under Northern Lights as snow falls, the pic sports exquisitely colored widescreen cinematography by John Christian Rosenlund, Hamer’s collaborator on “O’Horten” and “Factotum.” John Erik Kaada’s orchestral score is alternately haunting and uplifting, like the film itself.