Few if any contemporary filmmakers succeed in ennobling the luckless proletariat with the rich humanity, warmth, humor, respect and morality that Aki Kaurismaki brings to his characters. Continuing along lines explored in 1996’s “Drifting Clouds” — arguably the best of the wave of ’90s Euro films about unemployment — “The Man Without a Past” centers on one man whose life and memory are taken from him, who starts over from scratch to find love, self-esteem and a place in the world. Pairing the dramatic trajectory of vintage melodrama with the Finnish director’s customarily de-emphasized, amusingly deadpan style, this may be a small film in commercial terms, but it’s an enormously satisfying, superbly crafted one that should extend Kaurismaki’s devoted following.
While the setting is Helsinki, the story takes place on the city’s non-urban outskirts, where marginalized people struggle against poverty, unemployment and homelessness in an environment of economic failure and uncaring bureaucracy. As in “Drifting Clouds,” Kaurismaki again masterfully elevates his characters above this canvas of societal wretchedness, applying his peculiar brand of throwaway humor even to the most depressed situations such as a man living out of a dumpster.
Title character (Markku Peltola) is brutally beaten and robbed by thugs soon after arriving in Helsinki by train. Pronounced dead in the hospital, he calmly sits upright, bandaged like a mummy, straightens his broken nose and walks out. Two young brothers find him later on the riverbank with no memory of anything before being attacked.
The boys’ mother Kaisa (Kaija Pakarinen) runs a tight ship in the container shed where they live, keeping strict control of her husband (Juhani Niemela). While the family clearly has little to spare, Kaisa cares for the amnesiac until he’s well enough to find similar housing, rented out on the sly by Anttila (Sakari Kuosmanen), a security guard given to pompously Biblical phraseology.
Dining on Salvation Army nosh, the man meets Christian soldier Irma (Kati Outinen), who gives him clothes and a little work around the thrift store. She encourages him to pull himself together, but he is unable to get help from the unemployment center because of his lack of a name and other data. Walking Irma home one night, the man steals a chaste kiss and a quiet romance begins to takes shape.
At the same time, the amnesiac discovers he has an entrepreneurial spirit. Having rescued a broken-down juke box, he invites the lifeless Salvation Army band (Marko Haavisto and Poutahaukat, who also appear in Kaurismaki’s “Ten Minutes Older” seg) to listen to his selection of old-time rock’n’ roll, R&B and blues records, suggesting they expand their repertoire and reach out to new souls. Soon, their audience is dancing in soup lines and he’s booking the band riverbank gigs, with the store supervisor (veteran Finnish music star Anniki Tahti) dusting off her girlhood talents to be guest vocalist.
A flash of recognition leads to the man’s rediscovery of his welding skills and an offer of a job. But while attempting to open a bank account, he is involved in a robbery and arrested for refusing to give his name, resulting in a hilarious duel of police and legal wits between the investigating officer (Pertti Sveholm) and the man’s speech-impeded lawyer (Matti Wouri).
When police circulate his photo and ask for help in identifying him, his wife (Aino Seppo) responds from a distant town, revealing that he left in search of work. Insisting he respect the sanctity of marriage, Irma sadly bids farewell to the man. But his return home uncovers the full details of his past, allowing him to embrace a new future.
Consistently funny and ultimately uplifting, the story has two delightfully dour romantic leads in Peltola, who began working with Kaurismaki in the 1998 silent film “Juha,” and redoubtable longtime regular Outinen. Given dialogue that often has the ring of an overripe John M. Stahl melodrama — “Does a tree mourn for a fallen leaf?” — but delivering their lines always in a emotionally flat register, the solemn, subtly expressive actors come across as a wonderful kind of unglamorous Robert Mitchum-Gene Tierney duo.
That same vintage Hollywood spirit influences the look of the film, magnificently shot by veteran Kaurismaki collaborator Timo Salminen. The gorgeous heightened colors are resonant of old Technicolor movies and the deep-contrast tones and dramatic, Northern-light skies contribute to give the humble settings and characters a magnified scope and dignity.
As always, music is a fundamental tool in defining Kaurismaki’s eccentric world, from melancholy accordion tunes and orchestral pieces to torchy ballads and cheesy rock. Like “Drifting Clouds,” the new film also features one of the great screen canines in Anttila’s harmless “attack dog,” Hannibal.