The Man Without a Past

Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki has woven a little deadpan gypsy film that manages to shimmer in the viewer’s head long after the movie is over. By the end of The Man Without A Past, I was ready to abandon my house and toss every bit of the detritus in my life and hop a train to the nowhere in this scrappy little wonder.

The movie may be for the free of spirit but it is not for those who yearn for high-arching drama or even an arched eyebrow for that matter. Kaurismaki (Leningrad Cowboys Go America, The Match Factory Girl) has his characters use their bodies and faces as if the currency of expression had the market value of pure gold, which is why the eventual payoff is so rich. We are so accustomed in this country to overacting that the underacting in this film leaves an imprint of droll authenticity.

The movie begins with the beating of a man (Markku Peltola, who remains nameless in the film) in a park in Helsinki. He has come to Finland’s capital to find work. The man is pronounced dead at a hospital but, to the doctor’s dull amazement, wakes up with amnesia. He is bandaged up and wanders to a depressed waterfront where he is taken in by a family who rents a cargo trailer in which they eek out a pretty hardscrabble but meaningful existence.

As well, the man rents a trailer of his own, outfits it with a jukebox, table and two chairs. He plants a few potatoes outside the trailer door and therein begins his new pared down existence. He meets a pretty, middle-aged Salvation Army worker named Irma (Kati Outinen). After some awkward flirting, he dresses in the suit she has picked for him at the shop to find work, makes dinner for her in his tin box and they begins a respectful and nearly wordless courtship.

The film takes a few potshots at Finland’s overburdened bureaucracy and it may take some time to realize the movie is also a comedy because this is a world we do not easily recognize. Still, there are moments that are so wry the movie almost seems to create a new genre. The scenes have a kind of pure quality that make them all seem separate from each other, no directing the actors to be “doing something” while they speak. Nor is the music overwrought to fill in drama.

The dialogue, delivered so square jawed and direct, is unsettling at first and probably, for most, will be an acquired taste. In the span of a few months the man gently builds, brick by brick, a life without the kind of forced, dulled domestication that kills lives – and marriages. He eventually finds his way back to his original life and gets to make a choice that offends no one.

There is no contrived conflict other than the obvious confusion going on within the main character. In this sweet world of the dispossessed, the family of man actually seems like a reality and in doing that Kaurismaki has made a monumentally moving movie. It is one that would barely register on the same scale that measures mass culture films. Still, I left the theater humming “Somewhere in between the Moon and Helsinki” because I felt like I had been transported to another planet, one where small gestures are appreciated by all and where the uncool rule the earth.

The Man Without a Past was nominated last year for Best Foreign Language Film and received the Cannes Grand Jury Prize for 2002.

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