- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 15, 2003

One of the first indications that “The Man Without a Past” takes place in an alien world is that there are no cellular phones. Not a one.

And the film is set in Helsinki.

As anyone who follows the ups and downs of global economics knows, Finland, where the company Nokia is headquartered, is crawling with mobile phones.

I get the distinct feeling that Aki Kaurismaki, the acclaimed Finnish director, is trying to make a point with “The Man Without a Past,” which was up for best foreign film at this year’s Oscars.

Mr. Kaurismaki probably feels the same about Nokia as your average lefty Frenchman feels about McDonald’s. He detests the company and what it — along with global capitalism — is doing to his country.

That said, “Man” is not a bad movie, and the director is by no means overly pushy with his message. It’s a surpassingly weird movie but, again, not bad.

The eponymous protagonist (Markku Peltola), a nameless welder from rural Finland, is first seen hopping off a train in the capital city. He parks himself on a bench, falls asleep and then proceeds to get beaten mercilessly by a trio of punky thugs who steal his wallet — and thus any trace of his identity.

(It’s not clear why he can’t be identified by other means — dental records, say — but bear with Mr. Kaurismaki here.)

M, as the lead character is named in the credits, drags his bloodied self back to the train station, where no one seems to react with any sense of urgency. Ditto at the hospital: A doctor and nurse casually let him flat line; better that he die than live out his life as a vegetable.

But get this: After he’s declared dead, M pops out of bed, twists his busted nose back into place and walks out of the hospital.

Has he been resurrected? Is it some kind of mystical fantasy sequence? Is he about to enter some kind of colony of the living dead?

It’s not clear, and it doesn’t really matter. What matters is where M ends up and how he manages to patch his shattered life back together.

A nameless amnesiac, M is taken in by Helsinki’s urban wretches, nursed back to health and put back on his feet. First, he washes ashore on the economically depressed outer fringe of the city — the land of the have-no-cell-phones. There, he’s found by a family living, like the rest of the neighborhood, in its own trailer/cargo container.

Now, I don’t want to sound as pretentious as this movie sometimes is, but let me hazard a few guesses about “Man” as it relates to the storied principle of solidarity that persists among the remaining adherents of international socialism — “Workers of the world, unite,” and all that.

Consider: M politely knocks on the door of a garbage Dumpster that another poor, displaced Finn calls home. When he nabs a cargo container of his own, a utility worker turns the other way and lets M tap into the electricity grid for free.

Am I reading too much into things if I’m catching a socialist vibe about private property?

Take another scene, set in a downtown bank. M can’t open an account of his own because he has no name, no identity. Therefore, the state can’t control how he spends his money.

I think I’m reading you, Mr. Kaurismaki.

Still, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that “Man,” as a painter’s canvas, is a beautiful picture. Cinematographer Timo Salminen in particular deserves praise. All the colors are bold and highly saturated, making every set look otherworldly and strangely captivating.

Also, M’s romance with a buttoned-up Salvation Army worker, Irma (Kati Outinen), is very touching, in a charmingly awkward sort of way. I also loved the fact that he finds solace and exhilaration in the sounds of early American rock music.

Humorously, he persuades a troupe of Salvation Army singers to convert into a reverby surf-rock band. They, of course, play free gigs for the homeless.

Mr. Kaurismaki is, no doubt, a talented and serious-minded artist. I just wish his polemics were a little less convoluted.

**1/2

TITLE: “The Man Without a Past,” in Finnish with English subtitles

RATING: PG-13 (Brief graphic violence)

CREDITS: Produced, written and directed by Aki Kaurismaki. Cinematography by Timo Salminen.

RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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