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Nikander is a garbage collector who, although not happy with the way his life is going, has accepted that that is his lot. His colleague wants to start up a new business, hiring Nikander as a driver, but drops dead before he can do anything about it. Nikander gets horribly drunk and wakes up the next day in a police cell, along with Melartin, who ends up being Nikander's new colleague. Then Nikander plucks up the courage to ask out Ilona, who works at the local supermarket. Too shy to make a move on her, Ilona decides that the relationship won't work, but is soon back on the scene when she loses her job. Is Ilona the right woman for Nikander? Or is he destined to spend his life alone?
This is the second film I have watched by Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki (the first being Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana) and it is, in many ways quite similar in that it focuses on very ordinary people and their very ordinary lives. There is absolutely nothing outstanding about Nikander. Played by Matti Pellonpaa (who also starred in Tatiana), he is a greasy, lank-haired man who says very little - partly due to shyness, partly because he has nothing of interest to say. Yet, there is something about him that makes his predicament intriguing viewing. Perhaps it is the idea that this man could represent any one of us and, by seeing him finding his paradise, it gives hope to the rest of us. Whatever the reason, I found myself rooting for him all the way through the film.
Ilona is played by Kati Outinen, a popular Kaurismaki actress who, like Pellonpaa, also starred in Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana. Ilona is a hard-faced woman, who finds herself forced to use people just to get by in life. Nevertheless, it is easy to feel sorry for her - she loses her job and her apartment in one fell swoop and has to rely on other people. And although initially, she seems to have very little attraction for Nikander, it eventually becomes clear that there is a bit more kindness to her than meets the eye - despite the hard exterior. Outinen is an actress who would probably not go far in Hollywood - she just doesn't have the looks, like all Kaurismaki's actresses (and actors come to that) - but she is a much stronger actress than most that appear on our screens these days. She has a minimalist approach to acting, which is far more effective than much of the histrionics and over-acting by many so-called talented actors.
The minimalist approach definitely refers to the film in general as well. For the first five minutes (or at least it feels that long), there is no speech. We watch Nikander go about his everyday life; collecting garbage, eating meals, and even when the conversation begins, it is a very mundane one. The backdrop to the film is dull - garbage trucks and tatty restaurants and apartments, and the colours are very green and brown. Yet somehow, despite all this, this approach works, drawing in the viewer. I knew, from Tatiana, not to expect any great excitement, but there are a couple of intriguing threads that brighten things up a little - including Ilona's theft of a large sum of cash and Nikander's beating. And there is a definite ending - this is not one of those films that peters out, leaving you wondering what happens to everyone.
I'm not precisely sure what Kaurismaki hoped to achieve with his films, most of which seem to follow this basic pattern, but I imagine he wanted to capture for posterity the struggle of the ordinary person, something from which most directors keep well away, and for good reason. This seems to be an insight into Finnish people, trapped into a life of earning money in order to pay the rent, without having any future that they can see. There is also a huge amount of drinking, usually vodka. It doesn't exactly provide a flattering view of the Fins - personally, if I hadn't met several Finnish people over the years, I wouldn't have the most positive opinion of them now! That is a shame though, because I think that there are people like this all over the world; it's just that their lives aren't often translated onto the screen. This is a warts and all portrayal - almost like a documentary.
There are unfortunately no extras whatsoever with the DVD. And the film itself is only 76 minutes long, so you aren't exactly getting much for your money, especially when, as a foreign language DVD, it is very expensive to buy over here. However, I appreciated the length of the film - any longer and it would have been too much. There are, of course, subtitles, but as there is so little speech, these aren't hard to follow.
This is an unusual film, one to which it is hard to give full credit. I imagine a lot of people will be put off by the ordinariness of it all. However, if you have any interest in Finland, or appreciate films that try to show life as it really is rather than the way Hollywood would like us to see it, then this is definitely worth watching. And, at only 76 minutes, you are not wasting much of your time even if you don't like it. Personally, I thought it was great and am looking forward to seeing more of Kaurismaki's work. Recommended.
The DVD is available from Amazon for £23.99.
Running time: 76 minutes