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Monday, March 27, 2006

A Man Without A Past

Saturday night I finally had time to watch something other than Alborada - I chose an Oscar-nominated movie from Finland, made by Aki Kaurismaki, called "A Man Without a Past."

It reminded me, often, of one of my great favorites, Brother From Another Planet, another movie about someone far from home, adrift, helped and befriended by others whose luck is just as hard.

Be warned - the first twenty minutes are painful: there's a brutal head-cracking and the protagonist is left for dead three times. There is also ambiguity about whether it's going to be a fantasy: after his vital signs have flatlined and the doctor and nurse have covered his face and walked away, "M" briskly rises from his hospital bed and twists his nose back into place.

"With little more than a shrug and a sigh (Peltola has the scruffy implacability of a silent screen comic), the amnesiac picks himself up and stumbles into the street."

M, who lost not only his memory but his wallet and welder's helmet - who had his very boots stolen off his feet as he lay comatose on the beach - settles peacefully in a Helsinki junkyard "where life's discards live in abandoned truck-size shipping containers. They live frugally and, for the most part, amiably."

Once he begins to speak again ("until now there was nothing to say") he reveals a magnificently dry sense of humor. In fact, all the actors cracked me up without ever themselves cracking a smile. The sly little jokes come fast and flat - Finland's answer to West Wing.

Here, for instance, is M's interchange with the hardnosed landlord of Container World when he shows up with a small, sweet white dog (named Hannibal) to demand the rent: "If you don't pay up, I'll set my savage dog to bite your nose off." "It only gets in the way." "You wouldn't be able to smoke in the shower."

M turns out to be a strong and ingenious man; he plants potatoes under a tree by the ocean and finds work at the Salvation Army, where he entertains himself by livening up the band's repertoire. (The sound track is wonderful.)

He falls for a sour, homely, lonely Salvation army spinster (Kati Outinen) who listens to rock and roll in her room at night and whose sense of humor is as dry as his.

Their courtship is decorous and brusque. (From a Netflix review: "Some call the Germans rude, but I've just learned they are practical and darn efficient. Well, it appears the Finns make Germans look like Greek emotions gone wild.")

It's hard to live in society without a name; M even gets put in jail for 'failure to cooperate' because he can't produce one. Late in the movie, when he is handed his true identity, he leaves his second life, briefly, with supreme reluctance, in order to revisit his first; we see that, despite the absence of the "better things in life," he is happier the second time around.

A final homage to "Brother From Another Planet" has the folks of this wretched neighborhood rising up, armed with nothing but their determination, to stop the thugs who first attacked M. ("I thought we killed you already.") As in Sayles's movie, we see that people who have very little often help each other, knowing full well nobody else will.

Even those above the waterline are clearly aware that the difference between sinking and swimming is a matter of mere inches. The electrician who hooks up M's power refuses payment, saying only: "If you see me lying face down in the gutter, turn me on my back."

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At 6:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your review!

Another great Finnish movie is THE CUCKOO.


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