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Finnish director Aki
Kaurismaki's new film is a marvel of both style and substance, combining deceptive
simplicity with profound understanding. Kaurismaki, also the author of the screenplay,
unblinkingly shows ways that people mistreat one another, expressed with wry irony; at the
same time his film glows with affirmation of the fundamental decency of humanity. The
Man Without a Past demonstrates superb filmmaking without gimmickry, but with
artistic discipline that distills its theme into a running time of 97 minutes, not one of
them wasted. It is, without question, one of the finest films to be released this year.
The Man (Markku Peltola) arrives by train in Helsinki one night, only to be set upon and brutally beaten by thugs. They cover his face with a metal mask (a clue to his identity) and leave him unconscious. In daylight, in shots that do not fully reveal his condition except through the startled stares of passersby, he manages to walk to a hospital where he is treated, but then declared dead when the cardiac monitor straightlines. Shortly after, he sits up from the sheet covering him and leaves the hospital.
Found asleep on a riverbank, he is taken in and nursed back to health by a poor family living in an abandoned shipping container. ("We are lucky," says the wife, who itemizes their good fortune--the container to live in, the hope of a welfare flat in a year or two, a part time job for her husband as a night watchman.) The Man has amnesia and can remember nothing of his previous life--Kaurismaki's ambiguity on his death and subsequent return (resurrection?) emphasizes that The Man is starting from scratch and must build a life only with the resources he can find and the resourcefulness within himself.
What follows is The Man pulling together the essentials of a life--a place to live, a job, friends, even love in the gentlest, most tentative courtship imaginable of a plain Salvation Army worker, Irma (Kati Outinen). The homeless and vagrants around him are more often than not the most giving, the most willing to help. A government authority (vaguely defined--a policeman?) is a bully, profiting illegally from the woes of others. Government bureaucrats, locked into their forms and standardized procedures, offer scorn, but no help. But a utility worker, who hooks up The Man's place to the electrical supply, refuses payment: "If you see me face down in the gutter," he says, "turn me over on my back." And, in a genuinely hilarious scene, a sympathetic lawyer bests the heartless system by knowing it better than, and playing it against, the authorities hiding behind it.
Through a series of events in The Man's new life, Kaurismaki offers plentiful humor and telling characterizations drawn with the most economical of brushes. His emphasis is strongly visual and he lets his camera linger on a seemingly still face, letting the features speak to the audience as would a painted portrait. He never ignores the negatives and suggests the corruption that even a small amount of power can invest in human relationships. But he also is able to laugh--and make us laugh--at human absurdities. He reveals the dark side with scathing observation that somehow shows, simultaneously, an amused gentleness. At the same time his affirming view is rich with warm admiration for the humanity of the common man and his film radiates optimism: one can make a new life, one can find new love, one can reinvent oneself.
All of this is accomplished through the accumulation of incident, character, and the camera's observation. It's all there for the viewer to discover; Kaurismaki has no need of speeches or summaries, but trusts his audience and his own skill to communicate his ideas. The Man Without a Past is consummate filmmaking.
- Arthur Lazere