The orphaned Ingemar in the train riding to northern Sweden to live with his uncle and aunt.
My Life as a Dog is not really a Christmas movie, but to me it's a Christmas movie, because it celebrates love and our openness to it as the heart -- that is, the truth -- of our life on this earth.
Ingemar is a boy of 11 or 12 years old who lives in Sweden. He does not know his father, who evidently is in Brazil and shipping bananas from there to points north. His mother, whom he loves and shares his stories with, is terminally ill. His enraged older brother is harsh to him -- no help at all. He has a young friend who is a girl who is surely sympathetic and loving to him but is a bit shocked at the violence of Ingemar's mother -- when she is frustrated with Ingemar's boyish antics -- and of his brother. When the mother becomes so sick that she has to be hospitalized, the brothers become wards of the state and are separated. Ingemar is sent to live with his uncle and aunt in a remote village in northern Sweden--without his beleaguered but beloved mother, without his mean brother, and without his beloved dog, Laika.
All the time, Ingemar is narrating the story in a certain way: He thinks about terrible things. He thinks about the lovely lady who became a missionary who then was attacked and killed by those she strived to convert to Christianity; he thinks about the Soviet dog who was sent to outer space never to come back; and he thinks about the stuntman motorcyclist who tries to soar over one too many buses and finally meets his doom. The purpose of these mental meanderings? "I have it better than them," or
There but for the grace of God go I.
And when Ingemar arrives at his uncle's village he finds hilarity -- he finds it because he is open to it, and he longs to tell his mother about all the people in the village and how funny they are -- "she would have liked that." His friend on the soccer team asks, "Why are you looking at me?" and then answers in pure humility, "I know. My hair is green."
Despite his lacks and losses, Ingemar is enticed by life. He cannot help but be amused by the old man who spends all day hammering his roof; he cannot help but find a home in the new "lusthus" or summer house that his uncle builds in the backyard; he longs to join in the romps of his aunt and uncle as they chase each other in love around the house; he is enthralled by the beautiful lady in the glass-blowing factory in which he works parttime who is a subject of sculpture by the "local artiste"; he finds fun in joining his green-haired friend in a swinging basket that the friend's father has rigged to shoot kids out of his barn into the meadow; and he revels in sparring with the sole girl on the soccer team.
Ingemar sees his mother for the last time. She wisely admires his new jacket and its reflector lights.
So that: When he has his last heart-breaking visit with his dying mother in the hospital and comes back to northern Sweden and is suddenly struck with the realization that his dog Laika has in fact been taken away and that he will never see her -- or his mother -- again, Ingemar cries his heart out and lashes out at those who love but have lied to him. Yet he cannot help laughing at the old man hammering on his roof when he takes his annual plunge into the icy river to show his toughness and cannot help celebrating the boxing victory of Sweden's pride, Ingemar Johansson, with his girl soccer player friend.
It is not duty that calls Ingemar; it is love of life whose source is his love of people and enables him to survive his devastating losses and to live to tell the tale.
Affection seems to be the conclusion of the sparring match between Ingemar and the sole girl on the village soccer team.
As I watched Ingemar deal with the harsh blows that life had meted out to him, I felt I had a lot to learn from him. First, his constant thinking about others that had it far worse than he perceived his own situation to be enabled him to put things in perspective and to hold on to life and all it has to offer. Second, he found constant amusement in the foibles, lovable traits, and idiosyncrasies of those around him. I am reminded of Bishop Fulton Sheen's idea of humor -- in humor man finds amusement in the vast, incomprehensible but real difference between the Divine and the follies of man. And so Ingemar's bemusement is not a sarcastic and hurtful ridicule but a loving amusement at our human frailties, in contrast to the unattainable perfection that is a loving God.
Is this love -- both human and divine -- not the Christmas spirit?
And so this movie reminds me always:
“Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Luke 18:15-17)