Cinema Signal:

Guide to the Cinema of Sweden and Finland

. "The Man Without a Past"

Rarely has a film with such a style of awkwardness and robotic behavior delivered so much humor and poignance. You might have to go back to the Keaton dead-pan and the silents' technical simplicity to come close. It starts as a series of mishaps and jumpy episodes but adds up to thematic engagement any filmmaker could be proud of.

The "man" of the title (Markku Peltola) arrives by train in Helsinki, is savagely mugged and robbed and is so inert by the time he's taken to the hospital that the doctor declares him dead. Somehow, the absurdist nature of the enterprise puts a doubt on it and, sure enough, he rises from the bedsheets, somehow makes his way to the waterfront, passes out, is robbed again, and falls into the good graces of a couple who, despite economic deprivations and living in a converted ship container, feed and restore him to health, only to learn that he's got amnesia and has no idea who he is.

What ensues is the gradual rebuilding of a life at the edges of society, at times creative, immoral and proudly sympathetic and, as mechanical as the acting style is, draws you into a picaresque romantic drama adventure with a considerable emotional stake in the man's dignity and destiny.

The unwillingness of the police to accept his claim of amnesia as anything more than a criminal attempt to thwart the law is reminiscent of the sort of bad luck that hounded Chaplin's little tramp. The man's allotment of his potato crop to his neighbor and friend following a hilarious negotiation over survival is touching counterpoint in this unexpected comedic entertainment, cannily demonstrating how to turn the trivial into food for thought, humor and meaning.

Nothing here is wasted, least of all the ironies of being falsely implicated in a bank robbery, a timely and effective legal defense, leading to a discovery of his identity as a married man, a goodbye to his newfound sweetheart Irma (Kati Outinen), and yet another negotiation that results in as rewarding a conclusion as the movie could ask for -- all add up to a cinematic experience where wry, understated humor tops the agenda.

What starts out as stiff, stilted writing, acting and editing moves in on you unsuspectedly with a composite of sophistication that is the more rewarding because of the sly, almost dignified way it is built up. This is subtlety masquerading as simplicity.

It is one of the five nominees for 2002's Best Foreign Language Films.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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The Man Without a Past arises with all his injuries

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