Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace

Does the original trilogy justice in terms of heart, action, and fun —Marty Mapes (review...)

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The Man without a Past represented Finland at last year’s Oscars. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language film and lost to Nowhere in Africa.

The Man without a Past is a dry, human comedy with a simple premise: a man gets off a train, is beaten, robbed, and left for dead. When he comes to, he has amnesia and must restart his life again from scratch. He is taken in by a man who lives in a steel storage container near the docks of Helsinki.

The Bare Necessities

Markku Peltola looks for the bare necessities
Markku Peltola looks for the bare necessities

With nothing to lose, no responsibilities, and no identity, life is distilled to the bare essentials.

Food, shelter and friendly help are needed first. The Man (Markku Peltola), wrapped in bandages from a brief trip through the hospital, is taken in by Nieminen (Juhani Niemelä) and his family. They feed him and let him stay with them while he heals. Eventually The Man is well enough to join Nieminen for dinner out. After all, it’s Friday night. They go to Nieminen’s favorite spot: the soup line run by the Salvation Army.

Next comes a home. As luck would have it, Erikson’s storage container is available since he froze to death last winter. The Man needs a job to pay the rent. Without a name, he has trouble finding work, or even government assistance. But the Salvation Army lets him work for them until he gets on his feet.

Finally, life demands companionship and love. The Man finds the first by agreeing to be “watched” by his landlord’s “vicious” dog. He finds the second in the person of Irma (Kati Outinen), an officer in the Salvation Army who, for all her excitement and life experience, might as well be a nun.

Unfortunately, director Aki Kaurismaki seems to think he needs more closure than simply letting The Man meet life’s demands, so the movie finally reveals his identity and past life. At this point, the movie doesn’t have much more to say, but it runs on for fifteen minutes anyway, trying to stay interesting with more awkward gags.

Yeah, but It’s a Dry Wit

There seems to be a distinctly Scandinavian sense of humor in film. It’s dry, very subtle, and very human. The Man without a Past reminded me of another dry Scandinavian comedy called Songs from the Second Floor that made the art-house rounds this spring.

In The Man without a Past, this humane wit shows up in the security guard who is also The Man’s landlord. He’s intimidating at first, until The Man realizes the guard’s friends are just playing along with his delusions of power and menace. Then there’s a bank robber, a dog-eyed, doddering old gent, who’s very polite and apologetic. He finally remembers to shoot out the video camera, just as the clerk is explaining to him that it’s broken anyway. The crumbling bank has been sold to North Korea and would have been closing its doors tomorrow.

Some may find the subtle humor and awkward comic pauses boring and long, but that’s the style.

Human Comedy

On film, this comedy looks a little like the work of the great French comic Jacques Tati. There are long takes, wide shots, and awkward pauses. Kaurismäki’s style is not as con brio as Tati’s; it’s more bleak, poor, and pathetic. In fact, there’s a moment so touchingly pathetic that it’s worthy of Charlie Chaplin. The employment agency tells The Man to go away until he remembers his name. He can’t even afford a coffee, so at the diner he pours himself a cup of hot water and sits at a table by the window. He carefully pulls out his own well-used teabag that he keeps in a protective matchbox and makes a weak cup of tea.

This is the movie’s strong suit: sympathetic, pathetic characters. They are not asking for a handout; they’re just trying to meet the simplest of life’s demands. They’re funny because they’re only human. They’re not hilarious, beautiful, or macho. They’re ugly, old, and poor, but they have their dignity and they have their quirks.

If you can appreciate a slow pace and subtle comedy, The Man without a Past is worth a look. Its gentle sense of humor earned it an Academy Award nomination, a Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, and now a recommendation from Movie Habit.