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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.