The actor-director Maximilian Schell once suggested that a country needs a population of at least 50 million to generate a genuine national film industry. Whatever the accuracy of Schell's theory, history demonstrates that a comparatively limited number of citizens has not necessarily precluded the making of motion pictures in, say, Cuba, Sweden, or New Zealand. Small countries, however, rarely possess the financial resources, the technical training, the cultural support, or even the audiences --- and, therefore, the theaters --- to sustain the production of cinema on a large enough scale to qualify as a true industry. In fact, filmmakers from such countries most often must seek international distribution to attract recognition and, not incidentally, money.
Finland no doubt qualifies as one of those nations too small to establish any real history of film production, and I suspect that few Americans, even students of the cinema, can claim much familiarity with the Finnish product. Thus, a new movie from Finland, The Man Without a Past, written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki, represents something special for audiences in this country. In addition, it arrives in this region trailing garlands of the usual prizes from the usual festivals, from Cannes to Telluride, and an Academy Award nomination for best foreign language film. Although movie folks hand out medals, plaques, and statuettes like penny candy at a kindergarten party, the picture probably deserves most of its honors.
If the movie reflects something of the life and character of the country and its people, that image differs considerably from the National Geographic pictures of blue lakes, birch forests, snow, reindeer, and the midnight sun. The film takes place in a squalid urban setting, where people live in giant shipping containers, scrounge for household items in the dump, and dine out at the Salvation Army canteen. Despite the bleak surroundings and the poverty of their lives, most of the characters display a deadpan drollery in their language and attitudes, so that the action and meaning frequently alternate between the sad and the comical.
The title character loses his past when three thugs beat him savagely and leave him for dead. In the hospital, he inexplicably recovers from a coma and takes off, ending up in a poor neighborhood, where a family nurses him back to health and he settles down in his own shipping container and finds a menial job at the Salvation Army. Since the beating has robbed him of his memory, he knows nothing of himself, not even his name. His new life provides him the rare opportunity to invent a new self.
A favorite cinematic condition, amnesia has inspired scores of Hollywood flicks in which the protagonist usually finds himself lost in some sort of thriller, imperiled by the manipulations and betrayals of others, desperate to discover his true identity. In The Man Without a Past, amnesia functions comically to place the unnamed protagonist in a situation constructed mostly from the materials of Franz Kafka and Charlie Chaplain. His lack of an identity may cause him to disappear from the endless papers generated by the country's bureaucracy, but it also enables him to experience the world as a constantly unraveling puzzle, which he gradually solves with a kind of eccentric, fatalistic innocence.
Although he begins as a complete blank (he cannot remember anything, but can recognize the world around him), the title character (Markku Peltola) gradually creates an existence and a personality from the accumulating experiences of life in the waterfront slum. Most of the people around him treat him with kindness and charity, though most of them also mask this kindness in comically threatening words and mannerisms. He moves serenely through the life of the place, allowing events to happen and accepting, with immense calm, the essential strangeness of his existence.
The movie sometimes combines the tragic and the comic in some social criticism, as when a most unusual bank robber, who initially seems as eccentric and amusing as everyone else, ends up taking his own life, driven by the shame of losing his business and failing to pay his employees. In the midst of its darkly lit scenes and images of poverty, it now and then creates a moment of odd beauty. For example, the protagonist persuades the Salvation Army band to attempt some pop music for the poor folks they serve. In a bleak clearing in the middle of the slum, as the band plays, some members of the ragged audience rise and dance.
The genuine emotion in the film never spills over the confines of its quirky structure, which serves to reinforce its depth and meaning. Even the most comical words and gestures convey a calm sincerity, so that when love blossoms in the Finnish slum, it seems as quiet, as real, and, ultimately, as charming as the deadpan drollery of the characters.
The Finns seem a far funnier people than any of the travelogues or documentary accounts suggest; funny enough, in fact, to create a propitious atmosphere for a most unusual movie.
The Man Without a Past, starring Markku Peltola and Kati Outinen; produced, written, and directed by Aki Kaurismäki. The Little.
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