manwithoutdvdThe Man without a Past (2002), a masterpiece from Finnish director, Aki Kaurismaki, is an endearing tale of humanity, minimalist in style & dialogue, but with a compelling view on life through its frozen yet subversive tone of humor. The film begins on a tragic note, and soon turns into a longing, beautiful study of love and loneliness, of pain and poverty, of faith and fragility.  It is about a provincial welder, the unnamed protagonist {played with soulful deadpan by Markku Peltola} who arrives in Helsinki by train, in search of work, gets brutally mugged & assaulted by a group of thugs and left for dead. Pronounced dead in the hospital, he miraculously returns to life, stumbles out of the hospital, with his face fully swathed in bandages, and somehow is found collapsed on a riverbank that’s adjacent to an urban Finnish landscape shadowed by poverty and bureaucratic negligence. Subsequently, he is taken care of by a security guard who happens to be a landlord of the shipping container shantytown and as an unskilled individual, amusingly fancies himself a ruthless enforcer of law and order.  Poverty and existence of the downtrodden working class, I felt while watching this film, never has been captured in such an inviting manner. Not so eventful yet simple everyday-ness, resilience and nobility of poor families in hard times takes the audience far away from the universal definer of poverty, i.e. the struggle/labor and the sweat : simple family meals, the woman at the helm of family affairs striking conversations with the stranger who is recuperating from his head injuries to figure out his real identity, family sitting outside enjoying the music floating out of a radio,  dad after a hard day taking a hot shower bath in an open bathroom with his kids perched on the tin roof pouring hot steaming water through a bent pipe, dad requesting M to share his crop of Potatoes – a handful of Potatoes grown out of a tiny patch of ground  ….. manwithoutpast-1

despite repeated efforts by everyone, the protagonist fails to recall anything about his previous life, including his name {the final credits identify him simply as M}. Everyone, however, realizes that he could be from a working class because of his hands that look hardened from work, and his face clearly bearing signs of weathered hardship and disappointment. He, eventually, settles down in the community of homeless and destitute, & with a home in a converted storage shed with a mattress, a portable stove and a refurbished jukebox {M manages to salvage this jukebox, which  interestingly reflects his music preferences, i.e. ‘rhythm music’ {rockabilly, blues and vintage R&B}}. He also finds love in a melancholic Salvation Army worker, Irma {Kati Outinen}, who ladles out free soup by day, & lies awake in her dormitory at night, listening to Rock n Roll with almost a religious devotion… the film is littered with such quietly affecting sequences like that brief montage of homeless people sleeping on beaches and railroad tracks….Unexpected terrible blow of luck turns to good as M’s loss of his former life {a lot better and comfortable than his present status} symbolizes the emergence of a greater self / human in him, through his love for Irma and influence of his musical preferences that transforms the Salvation Army band into a swinging combo {with the thrift shop manager joining the band as a lead singer}. This juxtaposition of abject poverty, upbeat & lilting music filled evenings in a community setup  and everyone’s affection for M for enabling them to take pride in themselves and discover something fresh and new about selves regardless of being surrounded by hardship, poverty and unfortunate conditions, makes this film a contemporary resplendent fairy tale with an optimistic point of view on life.

Aki Kaurismaki’s films, largely, are woven around the aspirations and experiences of working class protagonists. One can see and feel a genuine investment of human norms and morals, positive attitudes {that are strongly associated with the upper class in the society} on simple-minded, regular factory workers, municipal employees, which, effortlessly enable them to rise above their status in the society, their occupations, and their mere existence as insignificant cogs in giant wheels of production. Aki Kaurismaki, with characteristically impish forthrightness, writes that ‘my social, economical and political views of the state of society, morals and love can hopefully be found from the film itself.’ The talk between the protagonist M and the electrician from the municipal utility company who runs a cable from a nearby power line to M’s home (who later repairs the jukebox for M) captures Kaurismaki’s ethical ideals…the electrician refuses payment from M and asks something else in exchange for his favour – ‘If you see lying face down in the gutter, turn me on my back’.  The film, on the whole, is beautiful and sad, witty and indifferent, promises a great beginning even being surrounded by the deepest misfortune. 

And I love reading this review! Kenneth Turan’s film review starts with the much-lauded ‘The Man without a past’ is a FROZEN FINNISH TREAT….:)

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