The Man Without a Past is a totally strange, beguiling, sadly humorous and humorously sad little film that’s apt to linger in your memory far longer than many a more immediately impressive work.
That said, this movie doesn’t travel all that well, which may explain why so little of writer/director Aki Kaurismaki’s work has been exported to these shores. It isn’t that Past is too insular to be understood outside of Kaurismaki’s native Finland, though the film is as intrinsically Finnish as a Sibelius symphony. The problem — to the degree that it is a problem — lies in the way the director incorporates his native pop culture. For example, the movie includes Finnish singer Annikki Tahti performing her 1955 hit (“Do You Remember Monrepos?”) about a Finnish province taken over by the Soviet Union — hardly something likely to be accessible to an American viewer (this American reviewer only knows it because he read about it while researching the film).
However, not being a part of this culture doesn’t make the film incomprehensible; it merely removes a layer of resonance from Kaurismaki’s achievement. And it’s possibly this very quality that makes Past so strangely haunting — the sense of things not being immediately accessible or perfectly comprehensible, even though the story itself is fairly universal, if far from commonplace (especially its more fantasticated aspects; while Past isn’t a fantasy in the more overt manner of, say, a Terry Gilliam film, it is indeed a fantasy).
Lacking a grounding in Kaurismaki’s work, the film most reminded me of Roman Polanski’s early short films, with their allegorical stories that take place in a generally realistic world where casual fantasy of a surreal nature is not unknown. The entire setup wouldn’t be out of place in Polanski’s world in general: A man (Markku Peltola) arrives in a new town, is set upon by thugs, beaten, robbed and left for dead — and is actually pronounced dead in the hospital, only to sit up and stumble out of the place under his own steam as soon as the “body” is left untended. (Indeed, the man’s bandaged self could deliberately recall Polanski’s The Tenant.)
The battered victim’s subsequent adventures, however, have much more in common with earlier Polanski, because of the unforced and blandly accepted fantastication of the film’s world — something emphasized by the deadpan manner in which all the players comport themselves. The man without a memory — referred to only as “M” — wanders into this world and is almost taken for granted, immediately finding succor in a down-and-out family’s “home,” where he’s nursed back to health. “M” takes up residency in a kind of bizarre village of the homeless (sort of a modern variant on the city-dump village of “Forgotten Men” in Gregory LaCava’s My Man Godfrey), living in what appears to be a storage car he rents from a man who we’re not even sure has the right to be renting the place. Moreover, “M” can’t immediately pay his landlord, who opts to let him stay for a while anyway, though leaving a supposedly vicious dog to watch the fellow (nothing the dog does suggests he’s vicious).
Lacking a name, papers, an identity number, etc., “M” finds it hard to get either work or access to social services, and so ends up depending on the kindness of other down-and-outers, and finding both a kind of work and a kind of romance with the Salvation Army. There’s less a plot — though “M” will learn who he is and what he was before it’s over — than a series of events and charming vignettes, which I won’t spoil by recounting.
The film is touching without ever being sentimental (when a character does “M” a kindness, all the altruist asks in return is, “If you see me facedown in the gutter, turn me on my back”). Past is also wryly amusing without ever being a contrived comedy, becoming uplifting without ever crossing over into the realm of a manipulative, “feel good” movie. It’s a rare film that makes the world seem not nearly so bad of a place when you finish watching it — and Past achieves this so subtly that you don’t at first realize it. This is a slyly masterful movie about rebirth (in this case, literally, if we choose to assume that “M” dies in that hospital and rises from the dead) and building life anew.
Yes, there are cultural resonances that are going to be lost in the translation, but this film is such a quiet little treasure that you probably won’t mind.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke