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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Chronicles of World Cinema I: The Man Without A Past

(Originally published here at

(Been home for a full five days now….. time to kick-start the blog again)

When we finally got rid of the friendly neighbourhood cable guy and his spider-web of wires, hooks and assorted paraphernelia; and switched to a DTH service, the best thing which came with it was the World Movies channel. Now, this was a channel dedicated to showing quality cinema from around the world to an Indian audience. A couple of days back, I saw this brilliant Finnish film called “The Man Without A Past” by director Aki Kaurismaki.

Like many other great films, this one, too has a very simple story. A man, newly arrived in Helsinki, gets so severely beaten up, that he develops amnesia. The rest of the film deals with his attempts to start a new life and try and find out more about his past. This leads to some darkly funny, sometimes poignant scenes. The central character is played by the late Finnish actor Markku Peltola.

Several things about this film impressed me to no end. Kaurismaki doesn’t go for big flashy camera movements, but he does just enough to make sure the net import of the scene is conveyed to the audience. His films are people with funny, sometimes spooky characters with seemingly complex inner lives. In this film, you have a faux-sinister cop with a brutish dog he keeps threatening M(the titular character) with. When asked the name of the dog, he says in a deadpan whisper, “Hannibal”. Later on, we are told that Hannibal, is in fact a female, and a pretty docile and clingy one at that.

A couple, Nieminen and his strong, independent wife Kaisa take M in and help him get back on his feet. Nieminen is the kind of gently funny character who embodies the spirit of the film, yet you cannot help but think that there is much more to him than meets the eye. In fact, (and this goes for most of the film) Kaurismaki’s work tends to resemble avant-garde theatre more than anything else. The scenes where M starts to live in a container and makes friends with others like him are superbly done. M gets help from the Salvation Army, and even starts to go out with one of the officers there.

Kaurismaki likes his music, and indeed, many crucial or particularly poignant moments in the film are marked by distinctive music. In this film, music is also an important plot device as M starts to manage and organize rock’n'roll concerts in the neighbourhood with some of his Salvation Army friends. (Remember the the three roving balladeers in Dev D? )

Without giving out spoilers, I’ll say that the manner in which M discovers his past and the action which ensues is unlike anything else you would have seen. I thought that in a film like this, there was no easy way to bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion, without seeming to be contrived or over-written. But Kaurismaki’s treatment completely floored me.

You’ll find it hard to categorize the film, and I’ve got a sneaky feeling this is true for Kaurismaki’s body of work as a whole. There are existentialist moments on display here, a dash of Thoreau when M turns backyard farmer. The delightfully quirky side-characters brings to mind the Coens, and the overall humanity which pervades every minute of the film has something of Ray about it. This is heady company, but one which Kaurismaki deserves, I feel.

After finishing the film I found out that it won the Grand Prix, the second most prestigious award at Cannes, and was also nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.(Kaurismaki refused to attend the ceremony in protest against the US, which was in a state of war at the time)
UTV World Movies is, in fact, screening more of Kaurismaki’s work, every Saturday night, all this month, and there’ll be plenty of repeats, too.(I caught this one on the second repeat, I believe) I’ll be sure to catch all of them, and I urge you to try and catch’em, too !

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