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Vol. 2, No. 3, 2003

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Robert J. Lewis
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from The Man Without a Past
from The Man Without a Past
from The Man Without a Past
from The Man Without a Past
from The Man Without a Past
from The Man Without a Past



directed by


Before Finland's free-market experiment in full employment turned sour in the early 1980s, an unwieldy percentage of eligible workers were in the employ of the government, enjoying social benefits some described as utopia-come-to earth -- until the national debt burst its bubble. What followed were austerity measures that produced national withdrawal symptoms worthy of the excesses that prompted them: Social programs vanished as New Deal politics (for many) reverted to old deal politics. Faster than mushrooms popping up after a hot rain, urban centers filled with vagrants, migrants, dead-beats and a new class of homeless. It is here, in the margins of dystopic Finland, Aki Kaurismaki's finds the inspiration for his writing and filmmaking.

Aki KaurismakiThe first of his films to gain international recognition was Drifting Clouds, (1996), which follows the downward spiral of a couple who lose everything except each other and the unsuspected determination to regain their dignity and a small piece of the pie; but only after the husband learns to accept his wife as the principal provider. The Man Without a Past, (2002) nominated for a Palmes d'Or at Cannes, continues the work begun in Drifting Clouds.

A man, portrayed by Markku Peltola, is mugged and left for dead. He wakes up in the recovery room of a hospital where he concocts a bizarre escape. Totally amnesiac, he finds himself in the care of a destitute family living in an abandoned shipping container by the sea. But atypically this is not a film of a man trying to find out who he is (or was) but rather of a man trying to make a future for himself in an environment whose derelicts, misfits, and oddball characters recall the miserable London of Charles Dickens. Gradually, we discover that however unfavorable a person's life situation, it need not be at the expense of his core values.

Throughout this film the old guard, comprised of quirky, comical, Cannery Row types, and despite hardship and temptation, almost always rises to the occasion of doing the right thing. As far as Finland is concerned, it seems that the divide between generations is not so much economic as spiritual and moral.

Of the many delights in this often humorous, witty film, is its script, written by Kaurismaki, which gets to the point with devices that thoroughly charm the ear. From words whose meanings are oddly weighted, to uncommon phrase constructs, every line is delivered with edge and unpredictability while retaining a naturalness that speaks to the wonderfully measured performances of Markku Peltola and the sublime Kati Outinen. If style is what finally distinguishes art from artifice, Kaurismaki has produced a script that manages to be both laconic and lyrical, recalling David Mamet at his best (House of Games, Things Change).

The Man Without a Past celebrates what is important in life. It demonstrates that a film can be philosophical and still be entertaining. Its simplicity belies the wisdom that affects the heart as much as the head.

Of the films lasting effects, the first is to entice us -- in the land of plenty -- to set a better example. After being made to enter into the lives of the desperate and dispossessed who have been left to fend for themselves, we expect to see the worst of them, but we don't. They refuse to see themselves as victims, a surprising fact that throws into a dubious light our own withering values and all-too-quick recourse to violence in the face of hardship. The film argues that any ethic worth its salt, once instilled, is inviolable, beyond the reach of life's worst circumstance.

The second effect of this quietly graceful film (not unlike Babette's Feast) is to persuade us that even more than our material needs, a friend, and/or timely gesture from another person or community are what constitute the real riches in life.

The Man Without a Past is what quality, low budget filmmaking is all about - and more. It's about having something to say and saying it well. It's about passion, craft and control, where every ego on the set is made to serve the final product.

That far too many European films get short shrift on this side of the Atlantic is an ongoing event that is happening on our watch. But for those willing to challenge the categories that determine the films we attend, the films themselves are their own reward.


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Copyright 2002 Robert J. Lewis