January 16, 2004 -- “The Man Without a Past” (Mies vailla menneisyyttä) is a whimsical Finnish film about a severely beaten man (played by Markku Peltola) who loses his memories of his past. Pronounced dead at the hospital, he suddenly revives and begins his life reborn, as it were. He leaves the hospital on his own power, eventually learning to make a living for himself on the fringes of Helsinki society. It turns out that his impoverished new life is better than the upper middle class life he left behind. This is similar to other identity change movies like “Total Recall,” but is lighter and funnier than most.
The unidentified man meets a variety of quirky characters, including a roguish security guard named Anttila (Sakari Kuosmanen), who makes money off the homeless by “renting” containers on the waterfront. It turns out Antilla's bark is worse than his bite, much like his dog. Antilla has a soft spot in his heart for the nameless man and he helps him in various ways. Although the main character is homeless and destitute when he first wakes up in the hospital, he has a strange confidence that his life will get better. The government won't help him because he has no name and no papers, so he helps himself. From the start, he continuously improves his situation. He plants potatoes next to his container and prepares for the winter. He gets a job working for the Salvation Army thrift store, and falls in love with a lonely Salvation Army officer named Irma (Kati Outinen). He also teaches the Salvation Army band to play livlier tunes (along the lines of “Sister Act”). Soon, the band is the hit of the local neighborhood, and church services are more popular than ever.
The film's wry, understated humor works well most of the time. At times the low-key romance is so understated it hardly registers. A slow-paced film, it certainly has its rewards for the patient viewer, but it is not the kind of film to knock your socks off with its sparkling comedy. Instead it is very reserved, insightful and does a wonderful job of developing its characters. It is also does a good job of exploring the idea of redemption and being reborn and remaking ones own life.
Funny scenes include a sharp lawyer who utterly dismantles a police case against his client, and an extremely strange bank robbery where a man steals back money from his own account. There is also a funny scene in which an electrical worker hooks power up to one of the rental containers. He refuses payment, saying only, “If you see me face down in the gutter, turn me over on my back.” The film is filled with about equal parts of humor and pathos. For instance, after the man is nearly killed by thugs, he is nursed back to health by a family so poor they are living in a container. It is a story both about man's inhumanity to man, and how people can work together selflessly to help each other. Officialdom, whether the police, or bureaucrats who won't help the nameless man, are consistently skewered in the film. This film rates a B.
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