One of the many strengths of The Giant is that it pays homage to the everyday courage of the physically and mentally disabled without ever condescending to their struggles. There’s no patronizing, self-congratulatory pity on display throughout this film, which is both a sensitive account of one handicapped man’s efforts to lead a normal life, and a grotesque comedy of pain that exposes the cruelty that lingers in modern European society.
Set in contemporary Sweden, the film begins as a kind of faux documentary of a local pétanque club and its eccentric members. Pétanque is a variation of lawn bowling, and thus a modification of an already niche sport. In choosing this particular game around which to craft his story, writer-director Johannes Nyholm emphasizes the outsider status of his characters, particularly the film’s protagonist, Rikard (Christian Andrén), an autistic and severely deformed man whose life revolves around pétanque.
The Giant’s authenticity is bolstered by Andrén’s performance, the kind of fully immersed acting that makes audiences forget that they’re watching a work of fiction. Made up to resemble a kind of miniature, one-eyed Elephant Man, Andrén, who’s himself physically disabled, seems to have channeled his own experiences in bringing Rikard so painfully and realistically to life.
The film is both an example of the sports-underdog genre and a parody of it. The plot traces Rikard’s unlikely road to the Nordic Championship of pétanque, where he and his teammate and best friend, Roland (Johan Kylén), eventually compete against the seemingly unbeatable reigning champs, a couple of arrogant Danish hipsters. While it has all the trappings of the aforementioned genre, the film also subverts the sentimentality and saccharine morality of similar works with its bawdy humor and refusal to provide a tidy, heartwarming conclusion to the story’s conflict. The film never feels manipulative because its tearjerker setup opts to ennoble the protagonist rather than use him to simply elicit our sympathy.
Some of the film’s minor characters are drawn in broad strokes, but for the most part both the handicapped and normally abled are shown to be capable of an equally wide range of emotions and actions. This is of a piece with the generous quality of Nyholm’s sometimes vulgar and even brutal humor, which stress the painful realities that form the background for the disabled characters’ indomitable spirits. There’s something at once funny and devastating about the bird that crashes into a window while trying to escape from the home of Rikard’s depressed mother, as well as the accidental blow from a teammate’s ball to the back of Rikard’s head that nearly ends his pétanque career. In their unexpectedness, these moments follow the formulas of classic slapstick while reminding us of the characters’ all too human frailty.
The club’s decision to curtail Rikard’s participation in the championship after the accidental blow to his head and the casual cruelty that he faces when he ventures outside of the club or his living facility seem to point to a tension within Sweden’s social welfare system. In his difficulty to communicate his desires and anxieties, Rikard embodies all those in Sweden who, for whatever reason, have difficulty speaking for themselves. The leaders of the pétanque club becomes a synecdoche for the socialist government in their effort to protect Rikard only to nearly rob him of his life’s sole passion in doing so. The bullies that plague Rikard, from the volleyball players that share the arena during the Nordic Championship of pétanque to the drunken amateur pétanque players that mock his disabilities, embody society’s inability to always protect the weak and needy. In revealing the downsides of both too much and not enough government interference in Rikard’s life, the film shows itself to be a shrewd political commentary as well as a canny portrait of a society continuing to wrestle with its ineffaceable cruelty.