I can't say with all certainty that Aki Kaurismaki is a filmmaking genius, but THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST is definitely a major work. I saw it tonight at the Wexner Center, which is running a Kaurismaki retrospective this month. (The film was paired with a French/Finnish documentary about the director.)
The only other Kaurismaki I'd come across was DRIFTING CLOUDS, which I liked well enough but was tired when I saw it via a non-region one DVD. I appreciated his strong use of color and extreme deadpan in crafting a film that was equally hilarious and sad. Due to schedule conflicts, tonight is probably the only night of the retrospective that I'll be able to attend, but what a film to see.
THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST follows a man who was almost beaten to death--the hospital staff actually pronounce him dead--but comes around and goes about his life even though he doesn't remember his name or any personal details. A family living in a shipping container takes him in and helps him get back on his feet. Before long he has found love and a job at the Salvation Army, not to mention a band whose repertoire he expands from traditional spirituals.
It's almost shocking to see Kaurismaki's generosity for the people on society's margins, which is largely why he can get away with a gallows humor that would seem meanspirited in other contexts. One man, dressed up in his suit, tells the nameless man that he'll take him out for dinner. Then we see them in line for the soup and bread the Salvation Army are distributing. The film's key exchange finds an electrician, who has hooked up the nameless protagonist's shipping container with power, turning down money for his work and saying, "If you see my lying face down in the gutter, turn me on my back." These aren't people dreaming of riches or even significantly better lives but just hoping to get by in their own ways. That they can find love and hope amid the detritus--like the man literally living in a dumpster--provides inspiration for the rest of us.
THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST is implicitly about the homeless--people without pasts and futures--as well as being a Christ-like tale. The nameless man rises from the dead, lives and communes with the outcasts, and brings salvation. This is an extraordinary film that I'd like to talk about more, but I'd better go to bed rather than be the man without sleep.