The Man Without a Past
It’s late at night in a Finland park adjacent to a train station. A middle-aged male traveler falls asleep on a bench. Three muggers bean him from behind with a baseball bat and ferociously kick him after he sprawls unconscious on the grass. The bloodied victim later awakens, stumbles to the station and collapses on a lavatory floor. An attendant checks the man for movement and reports into his walkie-talkie: “We have a dead man here.” So begins the pleasurably peculiar and doggedly deadpan fable of The Man Without a Past, in which this brutal, grim introduction soon segues into a soul-stirring tale of survival on a tattered fringe of society.
Fortunately for the anonymous pilgrim (played with perfectly understated perplexity by Markku Peltola), the report is not quite accurate. The man is taken to a hospital where a doctor soon makes a second premature pronouncement of his demise. While awaiting a lift to the morgue, the alleged cadaver suddenly sits upright and straightens his broken nose with a quick twist. He walks into the night looking much like the bandaged version of the Invisible Man.
Two kids find the hospital escapee lying like piece of human driftwood on the edge of the sea. Their mother (Kaija Pakarinen) nurses him back to health, and their father (Juhani Niemelä) befriends him. The family lives in a cluster of deserted, railroad-car-sized shipping containers. Their guest braves this new world without any memory of his past and sets up housekeeping in a container of his own.
The story is refreshingly free of profanity and sex. It has the simplicity of David Lynch’s The Straight Story, the picaresque sense of community of Federico Fellini’s Amarcord and the oddball character parade of Shohei Imamura’s Dr. Akagi. Humor is delivered with teasing sobriety, romance sneaks into the film on quiet moccasins, and one amnesiac’s resurrection of his independence and past unfurls like a rather languid stroll through a minefield of bureaucratic red tape and blackened memory.
The film offers a cornucopia of characters to savor. The husband who takes our marooned man out for dinner at the local Salvation Army food line likes to take the edge off his domestic responsibilities with beer chasers. His wife runs the household with a firm but flexible hand. A female Salvation Army worker Irma (Kati Outinen) listens to rock ’n’ roll (the Renegades’ “Do the Shake”) on her radio while going to bed. A beefy “landlord” (Sakari Kuosmanen) talks tough (“I am the whip of God,” he says, introducing himself) and is in relentless pursuit of the almighty dollar but has a huge heart and hilariously dry outlook on life.
The soundtrack is also a gem. Our primary protagonist moves a jukebox into his container that belts out such “rhythm music” as Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “That Crawlin’ Baby Blues.” An obese accordion player supplies music for the neighborhood. The local Salvation Army gospel band praises the Lord at the food lines, and its guitarists and drummer (whose lead singer echoes a Finnish Dave Alvin while performing) try their hands at a rockabilly beat.
The Man Without a Past is about identity and the perpetuation of common decency. It’s a warm valentine to humanity in which a man robs a bank that has just been sold to a foreign interest so he can thaw his frozen assets and pay his economically challenged workers for work already completed. It’s about a man who makes the best of his opportunities and accepts his lumps without sporting a chip on his shoulder.
When Irma tells our amnesiac to pull himself together, he does just that. He takes off his bandages, washes his clothes and moves onward in a world checkered with charity, harmony, hard times, snobbery and apathy. “God’s mercy reigns in heaven, but here on Earth, one must help oneself,” she says. And director Aki Kaurismäki, who refers to the film both as an epic drama and as a dream involving lonely hearts, drives that message home in a full-bodied, melancholy-tinged ode to the resiliency of mankind.