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With: Markku Peltola, Kati Outinen, Annikki Tähti, Juhani Niemelä, Kaija Pakarinen, Sakari Kuosmanen, Aino Seppo
Written by: Aki Kaurismäki
Directed by: Aki Kaurismäki
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence
Language: Finnish, with English subtitles
Running Time: 97
Date: 03/01/2002
IMDB

The Man Without a Past (2003)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Remembrance of Things Vast

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The oddball Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki starts his new film The Man Without a Past with one of the oldest plot gimmicks in the world: amnesia. But like magic, he makes us instantly forget about all the other amnesia plotlines we may have seen.

The film starts off-kilter with our conked-on-the-noggin hero (Markku Peltola) -- now swathed in bandages -- going to the mirror, straightening out his broken nose with a sharp twist and a CRACK. The rest of the film follows in that peculiar tone.

Director Kaurismaki has been on film's fringes for years, with cult items like and Ariel (1988) and Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), and regular stops at the San Francisco International Film Festival with films like I Hired a Contract Killer (1990), The Match Factory Girl (1992), Drifting Clouds (1996) and Juha (1999) as well as the new film.

But The Man Without a Past may be Kaurismaki's breakthrough -- he actually earned his (and Finland's) first Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film, though he lost to the more tepid and less interesting Nowhere in Africa.

In any case, the movie's memory-challenged and nameless hero wanders into a totally new life, a kind of junkyard wasteland between the docks and the railroad tracks where other squatters reside. Using his built-in instincts and skills, he sets himself up in a new dwelling (a metal shed) complete with electricity and a restored jukebox.

Over the course of the film, he falls in love with a blond Salvation Army worker, Irma (Kati Outinen), outfoxes his "landlord," starts a victory garden and begins teaching the sludgy Salvation Army band about rock 'n' roll. (One of the funniest scenes has the band crowded into the hero's dwelling, solemnly listening to the jukebox like it was a sermon.)

In fact, he maneuvers through his new world with such inventiveness and comfort that he's obviously a great deal happier than his next-door neighbor, a man who sneaks away from his wife for a clandestine beer and reminisces about the old days when he could handle a two-day bender.

We're even shocked when a fragment of the hero's former life comes back to haunt him; this is the first amnesia movie in which we root for the hero not to get his memory back.

Mostly, though, Kaurismaki simply wants to put on a good show. He's clearly intoxicated by cinema itself. He prefers long, wide takes, vivid compositions, a minimum of noise and chatter, and extremely bizarre jokes.

One of the best lines comes from a man who has done the hero a favor. The hero asks what he can do in return, and the man replies: "If you see me face down in the gutter, turn me onto my back." It's a funny line with a hint of meaning-of-life, as well as a kind of double-whammy.

And that's the mixed-up essence of The Man Without a Past a movie you won't soon forget.

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