A Swedish boarding school in the 1950s is the setting for Mikael Håfström’s Academy Award nominated Ondskan (Evil), which centers on Erik Ponti (Andreas Wilson), a strikingly handsome 15-year-old who was recently expelled from a school in his hometown after a violent fight. While it’s not initially clear whether Erik was a bully, he becomes a character you root for eventually, when you learn about his violent upbringing. A child of a broken household, he is subjected to vicious beatings by his stepfather and his meek, helpless mother always finding herself unable to defend him. She arranges for him to be shifted to a boarding school hoping this will improve things. When Erik reaches the boarding school, determined to be a good man, he discovers that it’s a far place than he had imagined – much worse than his own home, in fact.
There is a totalitarian student council comprised of sadistic senior students who seemingly wield higher power than the faculty members, and who make life a living hell for anyone unwilling to obey their rules. Those who make the mistake of standing up to them is subjected to extremely humiliating and painful physical and mental abuse. And those who wish to stand out – by taking part in sports or other activities and then winning in them – must think twice, because anything that gets you noticed is going to put you in harm’s way. Erik is an exceptionally fast swimmer and when he wins a trophy, he starts sticking out like a sore thumb. Erik stands up against the oppressors on multiple occasions, and as a result, he and his best friend Pierre are repeatedly harassed and abused in some of the worst ways imaginable.
Pierre is the class intellectual who helps out Erik with his homework. He looks up to Erik and remains his loyal friend. As Erik has prior experience with physical abuse, he has trained his mind and body in such a way that he can handle multiple punches to the face and even cigarette burns with equal ease. Pierre, on seeing this, wishes to be like him. When the level of cruelty goes up and the subsequent psychological damage reaches a breaking point, Erik decides to hit back with all the courage and force he can muster. What makes the film such an engaging and emotionally overwhelming piece of work are the characters. Erik’s tormentors are so despicable that they are no different from Nazis. If anyone has experienced bullying in their school days, this film may bring back bad memories. However, with the presence of a strong protagonist like Erik, the film delivers a cathartic experience.
You wish you were as strong as Erik, and you wish you could act in the same way that Erik does. This is someone who knows all his weaknesses really well and is trying so hard to be a new man, but then he is surrounded by the very dark forces that he’s been trying to run away from all his life. He is just like a criminal who just got out of prison and wants be a decent man but finds himself going back to his old ways. His situation reminded me of Al Pacino’s line from The Godfather-III: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Although it deals with teenage angst and rebellion – at one point Erik and Pierre mention James Dean’s Rebel without a Cause as a favorite – the film has all the trappings of an intense thriller, with Erik being the teenage version of one of those tough and cynical anti-heroes who take on the “system” singlehandedly.