Perspiration, conversation and a certain amount of carbonation are the accessories of “Steam of Life,” the best sauna movie anyone’s ever likely to see, and a movie in which usually taciturn men bare their sweaty pink bods and souls. Novelty of subject matter and potent, irresistible emotional content could make this docu the same kind of hit in the arthouse it’s been on Finnish television — whose American counterpart would probably insist on covering up the naughty bits and thus diluting the raw effect of naked men stripped of their inhibitions.
Sauna is shown the proper reverence in Joonas Berghall and Mika Hotakainen’s strictly observational docu, which is essentially a collection of conversations captured while the subjects seem to be at their most vulnerable — nude, wet and, occasionally, under the influence. Berghall and Hotakainen’s most remarkable accomplishment is their seeming invisibility: The men in “Steam of Life” talk so naturally and easily the viewer really feels like one hot fly on the wall as the stories roll out.
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Tales of sons and daughters. Marriages. Bitter custody battles. A fatal railway accidental that haunts an ex-train engineer. A dying grandfather and his worries about his wife. Prison, drink and dead children. Perhaps out of emotional self-preservation, viewers may convince themselves they’re watching a theatrical performance — because the subjects are so natural, the stories too painful, and their tellers too wounded to be confronted head-on. But it’s life at its most real.
Saunas pop up everywhere in “Steam of Life” — a converted camper trailer, for instance, or a phone booth. As a father washes his sons, he narrates a life story of mistakes and regrets, epiphanies and redemption; the small hot room becomes something sacred and transformative. Reservations melt away, and a kind of joy rises up like steam from a bed of hot rocks. Whoever says “boys don’t cry” should watch “Steam of Life,” which ought to be watched in a sauna, so the easily embarrassed can explain away their tears.
Tech credits are tops, notably the simple, eloquent work of lensers Heikki Farm and Jani Kumpulainen, and sound by Christian Christensen.