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Home > Books & Culture > The Arts

Books & Culture, January/February 2003

Born Again
The Man Without a Past
by Peter T. Chattaway

Patrons of the New York Film Festival were disappointed last fall when two internationally acclaimed filmmakers did not come to the festival as planned. Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian auteur whose latest film, Ten, is a fascinating and complex critique of the status of women in Iran, was unable to attend because the American government's new security measures require all visitors from his country to undergo a three-month background check. Upset that his world-renowned colleague was being treated like a potential terrorist, Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki—whose The Man Without a Past had become one of the hottest items on the festival circuit after winning the Grand Prix, the Ecumenical Jury Prize and the Best Actress award at Cannes just a few months before—announced that he would not come to New York either. In a faxed statement, he said he was forced to cancel his own trip because "if the present government of the United States of America does not want an Iranian, they will hardly have any use for a Finn, either. We do not even have the oil."

Kaurismäki's statement hints at the mix of droll humor and serious sociopolitical concerns that is characteristic of his films. Inspired by the quiet transcendence of Robert Bresson yet also by the poker-faced comedy of Buster Keaton, Kaurismäki's films are minimalist masterworks in which characters cope with economic hardships and blows to their pride by expressing as little emotion as possible and by speaking in sometimes cryptic phrases, many of which are delivered in a hilariously deadpan style reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch or Hal Hartley. ("Do you mind if I smoke?" asks one character in The Man Without a Past. "Does a tree mourn for a fallen leaf?" comes the peculiar reply.) Thanks to his subtle use of expressive music and bright, colorful visuals, there is also an oddly optimistic quality to Kaurismäki's tales of life on the margins of society, a quality that sometimes has clear spiritual overtones.

Kaurismäki's quirky blend of black humor and bleak social realism, with a few sly biblical references thrown in for good measure, is evident in a scene from Drifting Clouds, a 1996 film about a trolley driver and his wife, a maitre d' at a once-popular restaurant, who lose their jobs and struggle to make ends meet. After several of his attempts to find new work have failed, and after creditors have begun to reclaim his possessions, Lauri (Kari Väänänen) kills time at home by filling out a newspaper puzzle, and he asks his wife, Ilona (Kati Outinen), if she can think of any words that remind her of "needle."

"Heroin, morphine, haystack," she replies. Lauri, apparently oblivious to the theme of futility that runs through Ilona's answer, tells her that none of those words fits. "Camel, seam," she offers. The last word works, and Lauri turns his attention to the next clue, which concerns a man who came down from a tree; the answer is Zacchaeus.

And so, between the tax collector who gave half of his possessions to the poor and the camel that could pass through the eye of a needle more easily than a rich man could enter the kingdom of God, Kaurismäki makes two oblique references to biblical characters whose riches stood in the way of their salvation. The implicit lesson is that Lauri and Ilona should not despair, despite their hardships—if anything, their suffering could bring them closer to God—but the references also stand as a critique of the bankers and other wealthy individuals who remain aloof from the less fortunate.

Drifting Clouds was Kaurismäki's first film in a projected trilogy on unemployment, and The Man Without a Past, a more than worthy contribution to the ever-popular genre of films about memory loss, is the second. It begins with a man (Markku Peltola) getting off a train in Helsinki and walking to a nearby park, where he falls asleep on a bench and is promptly beaten by three thugs who leave him for dead. The man is taken to a hospital, where he dies in the early hours of the morning.

But then a strange thing happens: once the doctor has left the room, the man sits up straight in his bed and walks to the mirror, where, his face swathed in bandages, he calmly straightens his broken nose. The next time we see the man, he is lying unconscious by a river; we do not know how he got there or why he collapsed again, but this time, he is found by a family living in a cargo container in a shipyard near the docks. When the man, who is listed in the film's credits only as M, comes around, it turns out he has no memory of his earlier life; and so he begins to create a new life and a new identity for himself with the help of his new neighbors.

The film derives much of its humor from the rules and customs that are a necessary part of the social order yet sometimes seem rather absurd. Some of these rules get in the way of the very empathy that they are supposed to facilitate; because he has no memory, M has no identity, as far as the bureaucracy is concerned, and without an identity, he cannot open a bank account or apply for a job or even for social assistance.

One character, a gruff security guard named Anttila (Sakari Kuosmanen), makes a big show of his position as an enforcer of rules, but he bends them, partly to benefit himself, but also partly out of concern for his fellow human beings. Anttila makes the people who live in the shipyard pay him "rent," and he insists he will deny them thrice, "like Peter denied Christ at the coal fire," if the authorities find out about them. ("When can I move in?" asks M after arranging to live in a cargo container of his own. "As soon as I turn my back," replies Anttila.) But for all his bluster, Anttila ultimately identifies with the people who live under his protection; when the thugs who beat M reappear at the end of the film, Anttila remarks, "They've beaten many of us," and M notes his use of the first person.

The film also shows how simple acts of kindness can reach above and beyond the rules and make life just a bit more bearable, as when a restaurant manager gives M a plate of leftovers. And there is sometimes a reciprocity to this kindness; when an electrician diverts some power to M's new cargo container, M asks what he owes him, and the electrician replies, "If you see me face down in the gutter, turn me on my back." Most significantly of all, M befriends the people who work for the local Salvation Army; they give him soup and a change of clothes, and he, in return, begins to court Irma (Outinen again), a lonely Christian soldier who is stunned to realize that a man has noticed her.

M also suggests ways the Army can improve its evangelistic efforts, proposing that the band take up rock & roll to make its message more appealing. "We've heard about rock," says the drummer, as though the existence of such music were a vague and unconfirmed rumor, and although his naïveté is quite unrealistic,1 those who have lived through the Christian music debates of the past few decades will recognize the caution with which the church officials accept M's advice. When the band is about to play its first pop song, a fairly generic ballad about the lonely hearts of men, the officials Christianize it for the crowd—and justify it to themselves—by explaining that the song demonstrates "the futility of our worldly life without Christ."

But it isn't long before the band embraces this new music in a bolder and more enthusiastic way. The next time we see them, at an event that is so popular with the shipyard's residents that the opportunistic Anttila charges admission, they play a catchy rockabilly tune about facing temptation and turning to God for help in staying on the straight and narrow.

In some ways, M is a classic Christ figure. Not only does he die and come back to life, but his amnesia and subsequent inclusion among the shipyard's residents could be interpreted as a sort of kenotic incarnation: once M has been emptied of his former life, he accepts his humble position among the marginalized, and he becomes a sort of mysterious outsider who bears witness to the despair of some people even as he brings grace to the lives of others. When M and Irma return home from a day of picking mushrooms in the woods, Irma, warmed by the joy they have found with each other, says, "It's all Mercy"—a line that evokes the parting words ("All is grace") of the title character in Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, who was himself a Christ figure of sorts.

But it is also possible to see M as a type of Christian, whose death and resurrection symbolize the spiritual renewal available to all who become new creations in Christ. When we finally learn a bit more about M's life before he lost his memory, we get the sense that he has been redeemed from some of his own faults and given a new lease on life himself. As a Christ figure, M brings grace into people's lives, but as a Christian figure, he has received it, too. Either way, it's all grace.

Peter T. Chattaway lives in Canada and writes about movies.

1. If any denomination has been slow to keep up with popular culture, the Salvation Army would not be it. One of the first Christian rock bands, the Joystrings, was composed of Sally Ann ministers and had a couple of minor hits on the British charts in 1964.

Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today International/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.

January/February 2003, Vol. 9, No. 1, Page 14

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