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The Man Without a Past

REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PRESENT

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The Man is dead. At least, his heart monitor says so, and his dead body would seem to concur. So who are his emergency-room doctor and nurse to disagree? They cover his face with a sheet, then leave the room to go about their early morning routine, allowing the corpse of their unidentified beating victim (and would-have-been vegetable) to rest in peace.

The Man is alive. At least, that's the impression you get when his dead body sits bolt upright on the gurney. He tries to remove the bandages from his face (no luck -- wrapped too tight), then puts on his pants and walks away, only to pass out alongside a river, where a wizened old man switches shoes with him (the Man get a pair of Keds in exchange for his leather cowboy boots).

Were the doctors and monitors all wrong? Is this an act of providence? Or have we entered a twilight zone, where the dead come to life and the living might as well be dead?

It's probably just a coincidence that toward the end of his story, this identity-less, amnesiac Man dines on sushi: His creator, like edible raw fish, is an international acquired taste, and in The Man Without a Past, the pre-eminently weird Aki Kaurismäki, Finland's signature filmmaker, outdoes himself.

That's not to say Man Without a Past is better than any of his other movies, such as The Match Factory Girl or Leningrad Cowboys Go America. It's just stranger, if that's even possible for a director who comes from one of the most tenuous of all the inhabitable places on Earth (it borders Russia, speaks an isolated language, and has almost more cell phones than people).

Man Without a Past ambles along blissfully like all of Kaurismäki's films -- part parable, part ultra-black comedy, and part meditation on the human condition. It's vaguely surreal, like a Buñuelian incursion into the most concrete irrationality, and yet thoroughly, depressingly, existentially Nordic, like an evening of Swedish theater, minus the climactic release of emotion. Kaurismäki's ending, naturally, is low-keyed. Understated. Barely stated. No: not stated at all. He simply leaves you to make of it what you dare.

The story of Kaurismäki's sullen sojourner (played by Markku Peltola) begins on a train and then moves to a park bench, where he falls asleep with his suitcase beside him. "WHACK!" Three young hoodlums, wielding a big stick, knock him to the ground and take his money in a swift, silent, joyless criminal enterprise. The first blow probably didn't kill him, but the beating they inflict surely does. Next, he's in the hospital. Then the heart monitors die, along with him. And then he's reborn.

He's found near the river by a domestic dominatrix who rules a shotgun shack and her henpecked husband, a recovering alcoholic who later buys himself and the Man a beer or six, knowing he faces a scolding later at home. ("You're the boss," the husband whimpers. She replies with an ominous grin.) The Man gets food in a Salvation Army soup line, where he meets the handsome Irma (Kati Outinen), a cactus of a woman, waiting to flower in the sunlight of his awkward love. Soon he rents a roomy (if condemned) storage shed from a corrupt neighborhood cop with a dog named Hannibal (as in Cannibal), although poochie turns out not to be the killer that his (actually, her) name threatens. (Hannibal, by the way, is portrayed by Tähti, whose mother and grandmother performed in earlier Kaurismäki films.)

From there, Man Without a Past meanders episodically through its protagonist's new life, which involves his (and everyone else's) largely fruitless efforts to make contact, with the Man serving as a sort of unwitting catalyst for change among the demimonde. These characters treat their encounters like transactions, with suspicion and self-interest, and you sense that Kaurismäki wavers between not believing in our humanity and in believing that it's all we have left.

One also suspects Kaurismäki is criticizing his native culture in ways that Finns will understand more fully than the rest of us. Still, everyone can nod along to his broader jabs at economic and social institutions, from something as benign as a proselytizing Salvation Army band, whom the Man eventually turns into Christian soft-rockers, to a government that seems to believe it's incapable of making a mistake, to an aggressive capitalism that leaves an honest man no recourse but robbery and suicide.

Much of Man Without a Past takes place in brilliant sunlight, albeit among the denizens of a makeshift seaside community of virtually homeless people, where a "wealthy" neighbor has a "washing machine" (i.e., a washboard with a ringer). Kaurismäki uses music for comical counterpoint -- Finnish tunes juxtaposed with B-side American pop and blues -- and his "jokes" are blunt and ill-formed, as if you're occasionally not sure whether he's inviting you to laugh.

In fact, you probably shouldn't laugh too hard at Kaurismäki's mordant wit. He calls upon his performers to do virtually nothing -- so much of it, in fact, that Outinen won an acting prize at Cannes. Not that she isn't just fine, but her victory surely must have given Kaurismäki one of his characteristically opaque smiles. In Finnish, with subtitles.

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