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.
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
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.