The Man Without a Past (2002)

Comedy Rated PG-13

Aki Kaurismaki’s The Man Without a Past can best be described as dourly delightful. This is the funniest movie I’ve seen about a man who is knocked unconscious during a mugging, loses his memory and is forced to live in a squatters’ community in an abandoned shipyard because the Finnish bureaucracy won’t recognize him without an identity. None of this is laugh-out-loud funny, mind you. It’s a comedy of droll smiles (even if the characters never break into one). How else to react to a scene in which a mugger turns up the radio he’s just stolen to accompany his victim’s beating? Music is key to Kaurismaki’s style. Our mystery hero, M (Markku Peltola), furnishes his storage container/home with a discarded jukebox, and the various rockabilly records, mixed with flourishes of funereal organ music, make for an eclectic soundtrack. The film also has a real feel for poverty, both material and emotional. The former can be felt in the attention the camera pays to the physical hardships the squatters face, while the latter surfaces in the many tableaus of groups of people sitting together in silence. Ultimately, M’s predicament comes to stand in for the anonymity of the impoverished. Social commentary aside, The Man Without a Past eventually develops a wry sense of geniality as M’s involvement with his neighbors (as well as his romance with a Salvation Army worker played by Kati Outinen) transforms the shipyard from a hardscrabble existence to a place of community. Indeed, the movie eventually brings such a sense of nobility to its characters that the final shot — of a train passing through the dingy shipyard — has the elegance of a closing curtain.