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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

The Man Without a Past (2002)

2003-04-04 (Limited release)

In the opening scenes of The Man Without a Past, the unnamed protagonist (the perfectly deadpan Markku Peltola) is beaten severely by neighborhood thugs. He loses his memory, goes into the hospital, flatlines, and then, miraculously rises from his deathbed. His face swathed in bandages, the man reaches for his broken nose and, with one twist, snaps it back in place. In the space of a few moments, he is murdered, resurrected, and reinvented. Initially a regular middle class worker, he’s transformed into a mysterious noir figure, living in poverty in a converted storage shed with a mattress, a portable stove, and a refurbished jukebox. He also falls in love along the way.

These are the pleasures of Finnish director, writer, and producer Aki Kaurismäki’s latest, sweetest film: desert-dry humor, visual jabs and parries, emotions so restrained that the merest hint of a smile is equivalent to ecstatic cartwheels. But not only happiness comes tempered with stoicism. The Man Without a Past is also about tragedy, specifically, its purifying powers. Here, terrible luck turns to good as the man’s loss of his former life (and relative wealth) signals the emergence of a greater self-awareness.

He achieves this in large part through his love for a Salvation Army worker, Irma (sad-faced Kati Outinen, who often stars in Kaurismäki films). When the man eats Sunday dinner at a local Salvation Army, he first sets eyes on Irma, Kaurismäki’s sort of fairy tale princess. Her hair pulled back severely, her uniform crisp and clean, Irma is a melancholy soldier of good works who goes home at night to a cot in a women’s dormitory. There, she listens to “Do the Shake” on cassette while drifting off to sleep, and, in one of the film’s most quietly affecting sequences, a brief montage of homeless people sleeping on beaches and railroad tracks accompanies the second half of the song. This juxtaposition of abject poverty and upbeat music encapsulates a theme of The Man Without a Past — the cruelty of everyday life might be alleviated by small pleasures.

This is no groundbreaking concept, of course, but a purposeful reworking of familiar dramatic ideas, specifically, classic Hollywood cinema. When the man and Irma first kiss, seated on his makeshift sofa and listening to old doo-wop on his jukebox, they incline their heads to opposite sides and press lips to lips in the vaguely uncomfortable style of lovers in a Bette Davis film. Bathed in candlelight, formal and sepia-toned, they appear less as lovers than memories of lovers from long ago. Though Peltola’s otherworldly character has no past of his own, he is from the past, from a tradition of Bogart-esque detectives and anti-heroes like Heathcliff. His actions are strangely formal and antiquated; his face is often harshly shadowed and framed by an outdated, floppy haircut. And onto this blank slate of a man, Irma can project dreams of men.

The Salvation Army band (Marko Haavisto and his band Poutahaukat) also hail from a past; a delightful bunch of stoic young men in uniform, they know nothing of rock and roll until the man plays some on his jukebox. Taken with this “new” music (although most of it is almost 50 years old), they begin playing with the Manageress (the fabulous Finnish singer Annikki Tähti) on lead vocals. Their performance of “Do You Remember Monrepos,” a melancholy waltz dedicated to a province of Finland annexed to the Soviet Union after World War II, combines nostalgia with slight, bittersweet irony.

The effect is breathtakingly beautiful and sad, witty and oddly distanced, as though band and audience, together, are mourning something so far gone it is almost unremembered. The film, as its title suggests, is not an ode to or repetition of the past, but instead, a revision. The man, too, is a revision — of concepts of memory and personality. In response to his influence, the villagers revise their own notions of these concepts, but most importantly, their concept of community.

His new acquaintances circle the man like rings around a planet. Though they feel constricted by expectations and mores, in him, they see a man become whole by being shattered. While most of the villagers may not quite realize why he has the effect he does, they love him for changing their lives for the better, for enabling them to take pride in themselves regardless of poverty, and for showing that, out of the deepest misfortune can come the most wonderful discovery.

When the man loses all memory, he becomes a cultural memory, a living memory. His blank slate is the impetus for the villagers to rediscover their identities as part of a culture: through music, history, and celebration. Most of all, he makes visible a sense of community; by the end, every villager attends the same concerts and every citizen comes to each other’s aid, regardless of social standing. Kaurismäki’s beautifully realized film evokes fairy tales, classic Hollywood cinema, and a long-lost sense of community. For a world that’s increasingly globalized yet also increasingly fragmented, The Man Without a Past resonates deeply as a bittersweet fairy tale, resplendent with the hope of salvation.