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Toronto 2013: 'Heart of a Lion' a neo-Nazi family dramedy?

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TORONTO -- One of the treats of any film festival is the chance to get a glimpse of rising artistic talents from distant places that you might otherwise miss. And so it was for me on Friday with “Heart of a Lion,” which gets its official world premiere for the public today at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Director Dome Karukoski, one of Finland’s newer stars, has taken on the country’s neo-Nazi issues and brought them very close to home in this strange hybrid of a film, written by Aleksi Bardy.

It all begins when a local skinhead honcho, Teppo (Peter Franzén), falls fast and hard for the beautiful, blond Sari (Laura Birn). The problem -- she has a biracial young son named Rahmu (Yusufa Sidibeh) and an ex (Jani Toivola) who stops by often to see his son.

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The film finds a way to mix hatred with humor, particularly as stepdad and son go from adversaries to allies. Rahmu calls Teppo “Nazi loser,” what Teppo calls Rahmu is not repeatable here, but the affection and teasing is clear.

It’s a highly combustible topic and Karukoski keeps his actors on edge and the violence pushed to the extreme. Teppo’s crazy skinhead brother Harri (Jasper Pääkkönen) takes care of a lot of the brutality. His rage and bigotry keep him constantly coiled.

But despite the bodies beaten to a pulp from beginning to end, there is a lot of heart and warmth here too. "Heart of a Lion" is clever in the way it casts the idea of “the Fatherland” against that of “fatherhood,” with Franzen excellent as the man in the middle. A provocative film at what is on course to be one of the most provocative festivals Toronto has hosted in years.

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