Depending on your sense of humor, the ironically titled “Welcome to Norway!” will seem like either a pleasantly pointed wheeze or a comedy in cringingly poor taste. The third feature from Norwegian helmer Rune Denstad Langlo (“North”) brings levity to a serious, highly topical subject as it spins a tale about a lovable loser who tries to convert his family’s failing mountaintop hotel into a state-supported refugee reception center. World premiered at the Goteborg Film Festival (rather than the more politically correct Berlinale, where “North” previously nabbed a critic’s kudo), “Welcome to Norway!” snagged the audience award for a film in competition and has already inked presales with Germany, Austria, Italy and Switzerland.
Failed entrepreneur Primus (Anders Baasmo Christiansen, the able star of Langlo’s previous films) is on the verge of losing the rundown resort that has been in his family for generations. His wife (Henriette Steenstrup) is so exhausted and depressed by his go-nowhere schemes that she mostly stays in bed. Teen daughter Oda (Nini Bakke Kristiansen) remains loving but skeptical. The xenophobic, casually racist Primus sees an opportunity to change his fortunes by making one out of the refugees, whom he refers to as “darkies” when he’s not equating Somalis and Saamis in very un-PC jokes.
In typical fashion, Primus puts the cart in front of the horse, taking in 50 asylum seekers before the hotel renovations are finished and even before his facilities have been approved by the state. His cluelessness about the people he is sheltering could have created an even bigger disaster if it were not for a helpful African youth, Abedi (Olivier Mukata), who speaks five languages, explains the difference between Sunni and Shia, and answers other perplexing questions. Abedi becomes something of a man Friday to Primus, accompanying and advising him as he navigates the demands of various authorities and his new tenants. In a subplot that leaves a sour taste, he even babysits the child of Line (Renate Reinsve), a man-hungry city functionary, who withholds funding from the center until Primus, er, services her.
Another, more sprightly subplot follows the friendship of lonely Oda and Arab teen Mona (Elisar Sayegh), who share a bedroom in Primus’ house since he can’t really safely put Mona in a hotel without doors. When Mona is threatened with deportation, the resourceful Oda devises an audacious solution.
Even though only a few of the refugees get much screen time apart from Abedi, Mona and a sarcastic electrician named Zoran (Slimane Dazi, “A Prophet”), Denstad Langlo’s screenplay manages to make clear what some of them are fleeing from, as in a sobering classroom scene in which Line’s lesson plan elicits more than she bargained for. Nevertheless, the core of the script is the relationship between Primus and Abedi, which, natch, turns the Norwegian into a better human being.
Never overplaying, the warm, optimistic Mukata (a real-life asylum seeker who came to Norway with his family at the age of 18) is the heart and soul of the film. He’s a remarkable find, and given his language skills (like Abedi, he speaks five), he is certain to be in demand at home and abroad. Per press notes, former refugees, many of them from Syria, played some of the smaller roles and were cast as extras.
Made on a relatively modest budget of just under €2 million, the film was shot on location near the Norwegian-Swedish border, in an actual but no longer functioning Alpine lodge. Lensed by d.p. Philip Ogaard during a snowy, the film makes the isolated location an important part of the action. Ola Kvemberg’s lightly used score provides momentum where needed.