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The Man Without a Past

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
  • COMMENTS
The Man Without a Past

from Film Forum, 02/20/03

Peter T. Chattaway (Books and Culture) turns in a review this week of a film nominated for Best Foreign Film: Aki Kaurismä ki's The Man Without a Past.

"Inspired by the quiet transcendence of Robert Bresson yet also by the poker-faced comedy of Buster Keaton, Kaurismäki's films are minimalist masterworks. Thanks to his subtle use of expressive music and bright, colorful visuals, there is also an oddly optimistic quality to Kaurismäki's tales of life on the margins of society, a quality that sometimes has clear spiritual overtones."

Chattaway also focuses on the Christ-like nature of the central character. "It is … possible to see M as a type of Christian, whose death and resurrection symbolize the spiritual renewal available to all who become new creations in Christ. When we finally learn a bit more about M's life before he lost his memory, we get the sense that he has been redeemed from some of his own faults and given a new lease on life himself. As a Christ figure, M brings grace into people's lives, but as a Christian figure, he has received it, too. Either way, it's all grace."

from Film Forum, 05/01/03

In the onslaught of this year's substandard films, moviegoers might easily miss a few gems worth seeking out. One is the delightfully quirky and colorful parable The Man Without a Past, from Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki. The film, which was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2002 Academy Awards, and has picked up several other honors in its world tour, is opening in limited release across the country.

The film opens with a man (Markku Peltola) getting off a train in Helsinki, where he is attacked by thugs. Written off as dead by his doctors, this unfortunate traveler returns to consciousness, but not to his memories. He flees the hospital and lands in the care of a kindhearted family who share their meager meals and the shambles of their home with him. With their help and the ministry of the Salvation Army, the enigmatic "M" finds enough strength and confidence to strike up a cautious romance with one of the ladies who works in the soup kitchen. Irma (Kati Outinen) quickly recognizes a large and gentle heart in the weather-beaten stranger, and she struggles with her desire to know him better and her duty to remain a restrained, dutiful servant of the Salvation Army. Eventually her friendship will be the key to helping M out of the trouble that comes from not having a name or a history.

Peltola, who has the road-weary authority and cool of Johnny Cash, is a wonderfully large and likeable screen presence. He and Outinen make M and Irma a charming couple. At times the camera captures the light of a fairy-tale, teasing us with bizarre supporting characters interesting enough to serve as the subjects of a series of films. One scene echoes The Fisher King directly, as the violent punks return to the scene of their earlier crime only to be ambushed by a host of armed homeless men rising up like phantoms from dark corners.

Viewers accustomed to the camera-ready faces of Hollywood actors will delight in the director's love of time-worn, detailed, fascinating faces. Kaurismä ki's fondness for American rock & roll is obvious as well. Watching M guide the somber Salvation Army singers out of their traditional hymns and into something resembling a Finnish Dire Straits is an unexpected pleasure, especially when the group gains an unlikely lead singer.

With its rusty old railroads and dingy metal canisters where the downtrodden dwell, Man Without a Past finds color, surprise, and joy in the simplicity of these struggling Helsinki outcasts. Their exchanges and support for each other in the shadow of the city's neglect resonate with the lessons of a Bible story or a book of old folk tales. (One review site quotes Kaurismäki as confessing, "I eat Bibles for breakfast.") Themes of resurrection, doing unto others, planning carefully for the future, and healing old wounds with forgiveness weave together to create storytelling—like Babette's Feast, Ordet, and Not of This World—that may not gain a large audience, but it will be remembered and even treasured by those who discover it.

Peter T. Chattaway's review at Books & Culture, which Film Forum mentioned a few weeks back, offers a deeper look at the way M's journey has Christlike connotations.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) says, "Kaurismä ki observes his characters with a wry eye and a gentle, almost melancholy compassion infused with subtle humor. The combination of soulful Finnish visuals, spare dialogue and measured sentimentality leads to a deftly resonant film that stands apart from the many Hollywood films that have used a character with amnesia as a gimmicky plot device."

Movieguide's critic says the movie's rave reviews are surprising for two reasons. "One, it is almost like a home movie, although it is very winsome. Two, it is unabashedly pro-Christian and pro-Salvation Army. What a joy it is to see the Gospel proclaimed and Christians commended in such a wonderful way."

Peruse the raves of mainstream critics here.


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