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Man Without a Past, The

Reviewed By Robert Flaxman
Posted 10/16/04 04:35:40

"Slow and steady wins the race."
5 stars (Awesome)

The minions of pop culture have had a lot of fun over the years exploiting the general public's conception of "foreign films" as bleak, minimalist, and enigmatic. People whose experience with European cinema is limited to a couple of trips to see whatever's turned up at the local arthouse theater or a childhood encounter with the work of Bergman have formed this concept, and this isn't to say they're totally off-base. Viewed through such a lens, Aki Kaurismäki's The Man without a Past might be considered a stereotypical European art film. To write it off as such is, however, selling it short.

A man arrives in Helsinki with only a suitcase. Asleep in a park, he is attacked by a gang of toughs who make off with his things, throw his ID papers in the trash, and leave him for dead. Taken to a hospital, his pulse stops, but after the doctors have pronounced him deceased, he sits up and walks out of the hospital, making his way to the edge of town before collapsing again. Nursed back to health by a poor family, our unnamed protagonist settles into life as an indigent - living out of a steeply-priced container by the Baltic Sea. He gets a low-paying job with the Salvation Army, and romances Irma, a co-worker, while being frustrated in various attempts at advancement due to his inability to remember his name or any other pertinent information.

That's basically the film. The story has a conclusion, but Kaurismäki doesn't dote on it; the film's trajectory isn't nearly as important as what is passed along the way. The Man without a Past looks like it could have been made at any time in the last thirty years, which says a lot either about Finland's current economy or the places in which Kaurismäki chose to film. Regardless, it's prodigiously effective for the tragedy of everyday life he sets out to depict. M (the name given to the protagonist in the end credits, even though he does eventually discover his full name) reassembles his stolen life against the backdrop of a shantytown, one whose inhabitants are unquestionably street-smart but unable to do much of anything with their lives. Indeed, everyone in the film seems to be stuck in a rut; M helps many of them change that, either directly or indirectly.

What is most impressive is Kaurismäki's blend of tragedy and comedy. He is a man who sees the humor in everyday life and merely points his camera at it. Despite its frequently surreal and unquestionably minimalist construction, nothing about the film feels untrue somehow. It sees the humor in the mundane, the humanity in the hopeless.

Kaurismäki's use of music in the film also comes across as subtly profound - the irony of M and Irma playing feel-good 50s rock is played up by cutting to shots of people sleeping in dumpsters as the music plays on. Yet despite their bigger problems, the whole neighborhood comes to a stop when the Salvation Army band plays. It should come as no surprise at the end when we find that one of the things along M's road to where he ended up was the loss of his record collection due to gambling debts. A man who has lost everything needs to put the music back into his life; it's once he's done that that he's free to live again.

Lush sets and sweeping action are great, but there's something to be said for a film of such starkly beautiful understatement. Kaurismäki's rhythm is poetic, his pacing exquisite. Barring one scene near the beginning of the film, not a frame of The Man without a Past feels out of place. It's an enchanting piece of work that proves that minimalism does not always have to feel like an ordeal. In the right hands, it can provide a swell of joy.

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