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Peter T. Chattaway

Born Again

The Man Without a Past

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 ...

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