Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki creates a tiny magic kingdom on a trash heap in The Man Without a Past, an endearing salute to lower-depths fraternity set along the fringes of Helsinki. Thugs beat the memory and almost all the life out of the nameless hero as soon as he reaches the city. But he gradually becomes a valued member of a community that lives, at the low end, in abandoned trash bins and shipping boxes, and, at the high end, in Spartan dormitories.
The movie starts out as an apocalyptic farce. Just when you think nothing worse can happen to the protagonist, a passer-by steals his boots and substitutes worn canvas shoes. But it evolves into a comedy of good feeling. A man with the fierce name Anttila (presumably Finnish for Attila?) serves as the shantytown's landlord. Not only is his bark worse than his bite, but his dog, Hannibal, turns out to be a sweetheart who'd rather nuzzle than bark or bite.
Soon, the Man Without a Past - played with a ticklish, bemused weariness by Markku Peltola - makes his container a home with some of society's choicest scraps, including a jukebox filled with blues, R&B; and soul. He wins a job and a girlfriend named Irma (Kati Outinen) at the Salvation Army. Eventually, he unites Christian charity with the tribal fellowship and sexuality of American pop. He turns the Salvation Army's band into a fab foursome.
The Man Without a Past has the slenderness of a folk-tale - also the clarity and charm. The heroes in this film build relationships from scratch; the villains contrive arrangements based on government records and bank accounts. If the movie lacks depth, there's beauty to its placement of rock 'n' roll in slag-pile settings. And at a time when American filmmakers can't replicate the simple hopefulness of early Capra, Kaurismaki blends integrity and playfulness into a spicy populist brew.
Man Without a Past
Starring Markku Peltola and Kati Outinen
Directed by Aki Kaurismaki
Released by Sony Classics
Time 97 minutes
Sun Score * * *