CFS brings new ‘Man’

Kelly Serrian

“A nameless man comes to town and gets beaten to death in the first possible moment. So begins this epic drama, this film — or should we say a dream — of lonely hearts with empty pockets under the big sky of our Lord … or should we say birds?” Thus speaks Aki Kaurismäki of his most recent film, “The Man Without a Past.”

Giving new meaning to the term tabula rasa, the title character, “M,” is mugged and brutally beaten one fateful night, his first in the big city of Helsinki. Left for dead, he is rescued, but seems to be suffering from amnesia. Deprived of his own identity, he is an everyman, a universal character. Unlike every man, however, M is capable of reinventing himself.

In a series of events, Kaurismäki strategically shows us how intricately interwoven all of our lives are, as M proves by all of the people whose lives he comes to touch and, like ripples in a pond, irrevocably affect. Not only are people affected individually, but also as an entire community; he allows them to rediscover their cultural identity through music, history and celebration. Ultimately, M is the glue that brings the people he meets into a viable community; by the film’s end, every “villager” attends the same concerts and comes to their neighbors’ aid, regardless of social standing.

Aki Kaurismäki, along with his older brother Mika, has been making films since the early ’80s, their combined efforts representing 20 percent of the cinematic output of Finland. “The Man Without a Past” is Aki’s first film to receive international attention, even in the United States; it was nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Film; won runner-up at the Cannes Film Festival and won six of Finland’s Jussi Awards, including Best Film and Best Direction.

“The Man Without a Past” is typical of Kaurismäki, in that his films tend to focus on forlorn characters who inhabit an equally miserable world. They are often on the very fringes of society (“On the Margins,” the very theme of this semester’s Cultural Film Series), and are at the mercy of their fellow man as well as fate. More than just plot, Kaurismäki’s movies are also characterized by his trademark stylistics, too: a straightforward, terse narrative driven by images rather than dialogue, bleak surroundings, often of an industrial wasteland, and a droll sense of humor.  In fact, a lot of the film’s whimsy stems from one-liners which are easy to miss because of their deadpan delivery.  

Kaurismäki also presents similar protagonists. They are almost always unusual looking people who rarely flash a smile. The observation of one critic succinctly puts this trait into perspective, in that their emotions are “so restrained that the merest hint of a smile is equivalent to ecstatic cartwheels,” says Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece. When the audience peers beneath the surface, however, these characters reveal glimpses of profound sadness, loneliness and yearning. They also tend to be kind souls, who possess an intrinsic sense of justice and dignity. These noble traits set them apart from mainstream members of society. Kaurismäki’s message to us is that, in his world, a character’s capacity for goodness and virtue is inversely proportional to his/her affluence and social status; that is, only the marginal can achieve even a semblance of a state of grace.

“The Man Without a Past” will be shown Saturday at 7 p.m., Sunday at 3:30 and 7 p.m. and Monday at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $3 for students and $4 for all others. There will be a lecture Monday evening only, featuring “The Charismatic Kaurismäki Presents the Invisible Man,” by communication professor Elana Rose Starr. For more information, call the communication department at x9-4750, on weekdays between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., or consult the CFS web page: