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Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Let's not forget to be happy in the here and now

The Man Without a Past

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Aki Kaurismaki
Running time: 97 minutes
Language: Finish
Currently showing

About 70 percent of "The Man Without a Past" consists of long, rich silences -- Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki could very well have called it "The Man Without Words."

News photo
Kati Outinen and Markku Peltola in "The Man Without a Past"

Usually, amnesiac movie characters want to recover their past or, at the very least, talk about it, but this man seems curiously disinclined to do either: He's just not interested. Transplanted into another movie, like "Memento" or "The Majestic," for example -- both of which deal with memory loss -- this man would have had far more lines and opportunities for soul-searching. He would certainly have been given better hair, snazzier outfits and a rock-chick girlfriend.

But this being a Kaurismaki film, he has none of those things. His hair is limp, his clothes literally come out of a Salvation Army barrel and his girlfriend is a modest, middle-aged spinster who matches him in reticence. Since he's not eager to remember the past, she doesn't want to probe. They're that wonderful and rare kind of people who are happy with the here and now. In one scene the man invites her over to dinner and after an awkward meal of burned pancakes, he sits with her on the couch and very gently kisses her. It doesn't seem like he's making his move; it just looks very sincere. You know he loves her. You know that she knows. And the quiet glow of their mutual happiness emanates from the screen.

Kaurismaki is a master at creating such warm emotive scenes, which envelop his corps of memorable but totally unglamourous characters. The people in Kaurismaki's films ("Drifting Clouds," "Take Care of Your Scarf") are often plagued by poverty and burdened by personal tragedy, but they never air their complaints, or get all traumatized. They simply plod on, trying to live each day as honorably as possible. In doing so they're suffused with a dignity that can only be described as the Kaurismaki touch. By comparison, the more stellar characters of today's cinema, with their abundant charm and expressiveness, can start to look desperate and cheap.

Admittedly, Kaurismaki isn't for everyone: In fact, he'll probably alienate an audience looking for big payoffs and cathartic closure. But to miss his films is to miss out on one of those rare joys of movie-going -- witnessing an entirely different way of filmmaking. Quite simply, there's no director like Kaurismaki, and his style, perfected over two decades, is inimitable.

"The Man Without a Past" brought Kaurismaki his first Grand Prix at Cannes, but also kicked up a bit of controversy when he canceled a trip to the 2002 New York Film Festival -- where his film was showing -- in protest when the United States refused to grant a visa to Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. Suitably, the film is more dramatic than most Kaurismaki films, charged with a passion for all that he has held dear in films and in life: integrity, individuality and personal happiness in the face of societal difficulties.

The Man (Markku Peltola) steps off a train in Helsinki and is immediately attacked by ruffians who steal his suitcase and leave him for dead. He recovers in a hospital, rips off his bandages and walks out. He winds up in a kind of trailer park, where families have set up dwellings inside abandoned ship containers. One family nurses his wounds, but they can't do anything about his memory, which he has lost completely. As soon as he's strong enough, the Man sets up his own container house and finds part-time work at the Salvation Army homeless shelter. There, he meets the quiet and mournful Irma (Kati Outinen), who admits she has never had a boyfriend. The Man and Irma fall in love, though neither of them know his name.

Halfway through their courtship, a crisis erupts: The Man's wife discovers his whereabouts and contacts him. Out of obligation, he agrees to go see her but tells Irma that he will return. She nods, wanting to believe him and not daring to voice any questions. Such a story offers plenty of opportunities for dialogue and emotion, but Kaurismaki and his characters remain detached. And despite the title, no one seems all that hung up on the Man's past, including the Man. "Life can only go forward," he says in his customary deadpan way. Then he closes his mouth and doesn't open it again for a while.

If the characters sound a little stiff to you, it's because they are. Stiffness is another Kaurismaki trademark: He doesn't want his cast to act so much as just be there, but at the same time he doesn't want them getting too relaxed. They recall people from Yasujiro Ozu films -- invariably quiet and seemingly bland, and, for this reason, vividly real. The Man and Irma never resort to easy familiarity, but once in a while, the joy of being in each other's company slightly breaks through from under a veneer of polite restraint.

Peltola gives an insightful performance as the Man, melancholic but sturdy. As for Irma, played by Kaurismaki-regular Outinen, she's becomingly fragile and very gentle. Though she doesn't do anything as pushy as to come out with her life story, you get the feeling that she has never had much happiness because she's never bothered to seek it out, that she's the kind of woman who deliberately takes the last place in line so that other people can go first. The glaring lights and competitive living conditions of other films might have killed her. But in Kaurismaki's particular ecosystem, she blooms, ever so shyly.

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