film 4 of 5

Man Without a Past

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 5, 2014

First things first: this film contains a ton of a lot of smoking! Director Aki Kaurismaki’s deadpan aesthetic might make this seem mere minimalist mannerism, but a closer, more careful look reveals how much more is really going on. For one thing, look at the resonant, weighty precedents. There’s Kaurismaki’s own proletariat trilogy, obviously (, as well as Jim Jarmusch’s simultaneously produced drolleries (, and Let’s up that ante: I’m going to say that Man Without a Past is worthy of comparison with Robert Bresson—Bresson plus laughs, and a deep and abiding love of rock music. Not only is it really sure handed and really funny, but it’s really beautiful.

The whole scenario, the whole world in which it is played out is pretty bleakly existential. Origin and context are immediately eliminated by an attack that constitutes some kind of brutal and ridiculous inciting incident. That is to say that instead of giving his viewers origins and context, Kaurismaki gives his protagonist malice and oblivion. Take that!

But existentialism also allows for, also demands the working out of a here-and-now salvation. That inciting attack is immediately followed by our protagonist’s inexplicable resurrection, by the intervention of those small boys and their shortfalling, still so-sufficient parents. It’s followed by all these tiny increments of order and increase, by the gradual and plausible formation of a kindly collective, a real community. It’s all very unfussy, very unsentimental. It’s also very affecting, very moving. Look at all the help this man gets, how he deserves it, how it causes him to improve and advance!

This has been, this will be a theme of Kaurismaki’s (, and it’s one of the things that makes him so very important. The medium of film has done plenty of lip-service to this kind of thing, but it hasn’t frequently enough gotten down to the essence. In the end this isn’t deadpan, it’s duration, and social commitment. We would all do well to more availingly consider the deep dignity of the dispossessed.