The Man Without a Past

The Man Without a Past (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Aki Kaurismäki
viewed: 04/18/03 at Castro Theater, SF, CA

I saw this film as what will probably be my only venture out to the San Francisco International Film Festival this year. I would love to have seen some more films but my schedule isn’t working with the festival’s schedule this year. It’s a shame, because I would love to have gone to see more films, but that’s the way it goes.

The Man Without a Past is a sweet-natured, simple comedy, somewhat absurdist and intentionally off-beat. Shot almost entirely in Helsinki and largely down at the industrial waterfront of the city, Kaurismäki paints a picture of the world of the financially marginalized in Finland’s capitol. It’s not a “realistic” portrait, not one steeped in a naturalism or even a faux naturalism, but rather a portrait that teeters on the surreal, reckoning of the lighter side of David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch perhaps. I’d only seen one of Aki Kaurismäki’s other films, Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), but I get the impression that his narrative style might well be aligned with those directors more than not.

The film follows the character of M, played by Markku Peltola, who develops amnesia after being severely beaten upon arriving in Helsinki. He builds a life among the slums of the city, living in a shipping container near the industrial waterfront. There is a gentle quirkiness to the people that he meets and the life that he develops, inflected with a sort of disgarded music soundtrack of obscure American rock and roll from the late 1950’s to early 1960’s (I am guessing at its period).

The story is almost naïve-ist in its tone and content, evoking humor from small moments and strange juxtapositions. Kaurismäki ‘s portrait of the people that live on the outskirts of the city of Helsinki and Finnish society in general shows them as good-hearted and decent, odd but kind. The film is sort of “softly” political, in that regard, though not confrontational at all. There is a great simplicity to it and an easy charm, perhaps there is a sense of naïveté in not just the film’s tone but the film’s construction. If so, it is one that is quite appealing.

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