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Man Without a Past, The

One of the best-loved films competing at the last Cannes Film Festival, Aki Kaurismaki’s wonderful Man Without a Past had to settle for the festival’s second prize when, to most people’s astonishment, the Palme d’Or was awarded to Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. Still, with his film also winning the ‘Best Actress’ statuette, the Cannes acclaim gave a welcome boost to the career of the Finnish auteur. The new film doesn’t exactly break new ground, but it consolidates the achievements of the director’s 1996 masterpiece Drifting Clouds, whose social and personal concerns have now been combined with Kaurismaki’s idiosyncratic take on genre conventions.
Like Drifting Clouds, Man Without a Past is first and foremost a warm and humane story about luckless outsiders who somehow manage to triumph over their grim lot. The title character (Markku Peltola) is viciously mugged on his arrival in Helsinki. Given up for dead, he miraculously revives in hospital, his body covered in bandages that make him look like a mummy, or perhaps even ‘the invisible man’. Suffering from a severe case of amnesia, he cannot avail of any institutional support because he has no identification papers. Drifting around the city, he ends up joining a band of homeless people who live in freight containers on near the harbour and eventually, after falling for a Salvation Army woman (the award-winning Kati Outinen), begins to put his life back together.
It’s a simple enough story, but Kaurismaki’s treatment gives it enormous resonance and poignancy of the kind that’s almost disappeared from contemporary cinema. Filmed in rich colours that recall the garish hues of classic Hollywood dramas, and suffused throughout with the director’s characteristically droll sense of humour, this is a beautifully tender and ultimately uplifting movie.
Finland-Germany-France, 2002. English subtitles. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 97 mins.

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