Staying Power

A Finnish film festival testifies to centuries of determination

If this seems a little overemphatic, it is. Both Kivi and Fairyland (Thursday, August 8 at 9:15 p.m.), a documentary about Unto Mononen, who wrote a popular Finnish tango, suffer from the attempt to lionize deeply flawed subjects. Both were heavy drinkers. Mononen wrecked his marriage, tormented his collaborators, and died after shooting himself in front of his friends. Kivi suffered a breakdown in his 30s, was institutionalized for schizophrenia, and died in poverty. (His ironic last words were: "I am alive.") Kivi's final shot--of a strapping Alexis on a mountaintop, surveying the countryside like Moses--is simply wrong. The cliché isn't just false; it's the exact opposite of Kivi's true achievement, which was to present an honest, unromantic, and sometimes contradictory portrait of the rural Finns, depicting them as lazy, ignorant, uncivilized, lustful, and unmistakably human.

A similar false romanticism permeates Gracious Curves and The One and Only (both screening Saturday and Sunday, August 10 and 11), two performance-art pieces by Kiti Loustarinen. The former is humorless dogma about the societal indignities that women suffer when they age; the latter is supposed to be a documentary about love, but it's really a thesis statement. These aren't real people's stories but cardboard portraits used to help Loustarinen "discover" exactly what she expected to find.

Still, the filmmaker's heavy hand can't entirely squelch her subjects. In spite of herself, Loustarinen manages to provide an indelible example of sisu in a Finnish couple who dated young and met again later in life, after earlier marriages had ended. With traditional deadpan humor, the two joke about their relationship: "When we were young, we had a secret love," says one. "Now [that we live across the highway from one another], we have a dangerous love. And next, we will have a deeper love--six feet deep, to be exact." The ten minutes Loustarinen devotes to these wry people are alone worth the price of admission.

Where to draw the line: Pertti Sveholm in 'The Geography of Fear'
Where to draw the line: Pertti Sveholm in 'The Geography of Fear'

This same black humor underlies The Tough Ones (Tuesday, August 6 at 7:15 p.m. and Friday, August 9 at 9:15 p.m.) and The Geography of Fear (Saturday, August 10 and Thursday, August 15 at 9:15 p.m.). In the first, two toughs return to terrorize their small hometown after serving time for a bank robbery; in a bizarre twist of fate, their accomplice, who wasn't caught, returns to town to serve as the new police chief. In the second, a forensic dentist learns that her sister has fallen in with a pack of murderous lesbians. In both cases, groups of characters are set at odds, and events play out to inevitable, violent, and gripping conclusions. In place of salvation, which never arrives, we have ongoing tribal warfare between men and women, or between order and chaos. Neither side fully wins. At best, characters have their eyes opened a little, begin to see what their opponents see. The most tragic characters remain blind and singular.

On the face of it, this isn't comedy. So what exactly is funny? One answer can be found in the oldest film on the ticket, 1923's The Village Shoemakers, adapted from a Kivi play. (In a special offsite presentation at the Heights Theater on Tuesday, August 6 at 7:00 p.m., this silent film screens to live organ accompaniment by Harvey Gustafson.) Esko, the village laughingstock, wants to get married, but misadventure follows misadventure until he finally gives up. The final shot finds him in old age, keeping company with a pig. Another way to say sisu, then, is: You try your hardest, and you wind up with a pig instead of a wife. Rather than see it as a reason to stop trying, the Finns have decided that it's a great cosmic joke.

It's possible to see Finnish film--and, by extension, a Finnish film festival--as yet another example of sisu. The government-supported film industry, struggling since the 1950s thanks to competition from Hollywood and television, produces about ten films per year, most of which are sold to Norwegian state television. Still, Finnish national identity and culture didn't exactly accumulate naturally over the centuries. Instead, they were pushed. The Finns created a written language from scratch, then built a literature. Now, against all odds, they're making movies about their writers.

If this seems like an absurd or daunting quest, it's also just life in a nation of contrasts, where survival in the meantime is the order of the day, and the best defense is sometimes just to find the truth and then laugh at it.

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