To Helsinki in a Handbasket

The Man Without a Past is witty movie about the Finnish underclass.

Irma and M are hopeful despite their lot in life
Irma and M are hopeful despite their lot in life

One of the challenges for any socially committed filmmaker working in what we would euphemistically call a “gritty” milieu is how to capture those settings in a way that neither romanticizes them nor makes them so depressing that the average moviegoer runs screaming to the nearest mega-budget opiate. In his latest deadpan, minimalist comedy The Man Without a Past (Sony Pictures Classics), the revered Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki has hit on a way to give you grim social realism and movie-ish sentimentality in one fell swoop: He has taken some of the bleakest settings on earth and added splotches of candy color; he has taken a minor-key story of an amnesiac who’s down and out and at the mercy of capitalism’s predators and added splotches of comic sweetness. The double vision is delightful—and surprisingly all of a piece.

The movie opens with a jolt of violence followed by a jolt of absurdity. It’s night, and a middle-aged man (Markku Peltola) in a leather jacket, beefy in the Robert Mitchum mode, gets off a train in Helsinki and goes for a smoke on a bench. He is swiftly bashed over the head by a gang of thugs, who rob him, pummel his unconscious body with mystifying viciousness, then leave him for dead. Shortly thereafter, he is staggering into a shopping center, apparently covered in blood. (We don’t see his face, only the faces of appalled passersby.) After he collapses face first into a toilet stall, a bystander phones the police and says that a man has just died. In the next shot, a doctor and a nurse hover over the still alive but critical and heavily bandaged man—and sadly watch his monitor flat-line. Grimly, they pull a sheet over him, record the time of death, and move on to other duties. After a beat, the man under the sheet rises, pulls the tubes from his body, and staggers into the Helsinki night.

What does Kaurismäki mean by this absurdist first chapter? That the man is a ghost? That he has been resurrected, Christlike—again and again? It might be the latter. But I think it’s also the director’s way of telling us that he wants to have it both ways—to show the very worst that can happen and then, impishly, to take us somewhere a lot less tragic. In the next shot, the man is lying face down by the harbor, where a passing tramp plucks the sturdy shoes from his feet and replaces them with worn-out sneakers. Just when we’ve concluded that the milk of human kindness has dried up at the tit, the man is discovered by a pair of young boys, taken in by a family of impoverished squatters, and nursed back to health in a corrugated shed with flecks of bright color. After several days, he comments casually on his surroundings—whereupon the woman who has saved his life says, “I didn’t know you could speak.” He replies, “I just haven’t had anything to say.”

Yes, it’s borderline cute. These northern countries produce a lot of dry whimsy (think of Scotland’s Bill Forsyth), but in Kaurismäki’s films, it’s anchored in anti-authoritarianism and the realities of class. One of the most striking figures in The Man Without a Past is the thuggish security guard who allows the amnesiac—who goes by the name of “M”—to take possession of a rubbish-strewn storage shed by the rubbish-strewn harbor in return for a not inconsiderable amount of money. (“Some would pay three times the rent for a water view.”) The guard embodies the venality of capitalism, yet with a wink, as if he’s commenting on his own role. When M can’t pay the first month’s rent on time, the guard threatens him with a “killer” dog named “Hannibal”; then he leaves the animal behind with the warning, “Don’t try to pet him, or you’ve thrown your last dart.” Of course, Hannibal proves to be the sweetest and most loyal mutt imaginable—and the guard himself rather harmless. Eventually, M will find work at a Salvation Army post and strike up a tentative but true relationship with the woman who runs the kitchen, Irma (Kati Outinen), who at first seems closed-down, even cold. Yet underneath, she’s as hopeful as he is. They both listen to bluesy rock—a Kaurismäki motif—on their respective cots and later watch approvingly as a group of Salvation Army workers form a rockabilly band.

Kaurismäki’s films (he has made more than 20 of them) go down so easily that you might underestimate their passion—and their sneaky subversiveness. M can’t build on his new relationships and put down roots: “Without a name and bank account,” a teller explains, “no one can control the way you spend your money.” Hence, he’s an enemy of the state: arrested for absurd reasons, then sprung—equally absurdly—by a virtuoso civil-liberties lawyer.

The characters in The Man Without a Past drift around under pale, washed-out skies, but every new scene brings an enlivening dose of rockabilly or a minute or so of lush classical music, along with those ‘50s/’60s diner-ware colors, like the square of orange on the door of M’s hovel. Those incongruous shades seem meant to reinforce the characters’ flashes of mordant wit: You can picture them daubing at the weathered surfaces with brushes dipped in model paint, using impudence as a hedge against poverty (and its attendant despair). This underclass fable is slight, finally, but its miserable/waggishly optimistic worldview leaves you feeling a little more alive.