The thought of yet another movie based on the old amnesia ploy may well be enough to fill you with dread, but Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismaki offers a take on the hoary old premise that’s a deadpan delight. “The Man Without a Past” isn’t a suspense picture, or a farce, or a heavy drama, or a take-off; it’s a wry, acutely observed and generous film that merely uses the loss of memory plot as a springboard to paint an affectionately whimsical portrait of those on the fringes of Helsinki society. Its self-conscious refusal to hurry things along and its penchant for droll understatement may put some viewers off, but those with patience and an appreciation for subtlety will be amply rewarded.
The film begins with an unnamed man (dour, sad-faced Markku Peltola) being beaten and robbed shortly after reaching Helsinki by train. Taken to the hospital, he’s pronounced dead but abruptly wakens and escapes. Not knowing who he is, he’s taken in by the Nieminen family (father Juhani Niemela, mother Kaija Pakarinen and two angelic boys) who live in a riverside shack, and shortly moves into his own nearby shed after making arrangements with an amusingly stern security guard (Sakari Kuosmanen). Soon he encounters Irma (Kati Outinen), a rigidly self-controlled soldier in the Salvation Army, through whose intervention he gets a job in the charity’s office; and a hesitant romance begins between them. The nameless man also has a curious effect on the Army’s little band, which he encourages to play more popular music for the local community of down-and-outers, before abruptly recalling that in earlier days he worked as a welder. When he tries to open a bank account in order to take a construction job, however, he finds himself involved as a hostage in a bank robbery, and the upshot is that his photo is circulated, leading to his identification as a married man from a rural district. He and Irma part, but as it turns out not for long.
This straightforward precis doesn’t do justice to the film, because Kaurismaki stages it in a wonderfully off-kilter way that nonetheless avoids condescension, always treating its supposed “losers” with warmth and bemused respect; their regard for one another in the face of society’s dismissal or outright hostility is quietly uplifting, but at the same time their exaggerated sense of decorum and incongruously elevated mode of speech make for lots of humor. Then there are hilarious episodes that come entirely out of left field: a legal duel over the man’s fate between an officious cop and a mushy-mouthed attorney, for example, or a drily funny conversation between the protagonist and his wife’s very close friend near the end. There’s even a gag involving a dog–usually a sign of comedic desperation (see “Bruce Almighty”)–that works beautifully. The effect is a film that’s not often laugh-out-loud funny, but that generates a continuous stream of smiles with its quirky, offbeat tone.
The cast is fully in tune with Kaurismaki’s approach. Poker-faced Peltola, dignified and unhurried, is matched by Outinen’s phlegmatic, serious Irma, and every other cast member, down to the intent Nieminen kids, provide beautifully judged turns. Perhaps Matti Wouri, as the lawyer, and Outi Maenpaa, as a singularly imperturbable bank clerk, stand out, but the entire ensemble is excellent. There’s nothing glitzy about the production–Kaurismaki favors a spare, unadorned style–but it fits perfectly with the apparent simplicity of the plot. An eclectic score complements things nicely.
“The Man Without a Past” is a lovely antidote to the overwrought, in-your-face comedies that Hollywood specializes in, and its characters pleasant alternatives to the frenetic folk who populate them. It’s a graceful, quietly humorous tribute to the sort of fringe-dwellers rarely seen in mainstream movies, let alone treated with such affection and respect.