Cinema Club: The Man Without a Past

Posted on July 3, 2013


The Man Without a Past (2002)

This film starts in a particularly inauspicious way. An unidentified man is on a train heading to a city, for reasons unexplained. He has a single suitcase with him, and an air of nonchalance in the hopeless sense. He gets off the train without a care, and eventually falls asleep in a park. He isn’t woken, but his sleep is ended by 3 thugs who violently beat him within an inch of his life and steal all of his meager belongings. He eventually gets back to the station, where he collapses in the bathroom. He is pronounced dead in the hospital, but manages to somehow recover, enough to get out and fall asleep on the banks of a river. He is taken in by a family, and nursed back to health. When he finally recovers, he has forgotten his identity and has absolutely no memory outside of the train. He is forced to start his life from scratch in a strange place surrounded by people he doesn’t know, including himself.

Somehow, he manages to do this however. He rents a container, plants potatoes and starts rebuilding. The Salvation Army helps him out immensely, with clothes and food and a job, and even love. Just as his life begins to resemble something approaching normality, his attempt to open a bank account is halted by a robbery. When taken to the police afterwards for questioning, his lack of identity causes all manner of problems, before a lawyer with a completely unintelligible accent helps him out. He bumps into the robber in a bar, who explains the circumstances surrounding his crime, and requests the forgotten mans help in righting some wrongs, which he does. Shortly after this, his identity is discovered, and he returns to his hometown even more confused and isolated. His return home is brief however, and he ends up back in his new city with his new life restored. The film ends with the thugs getting their comeuppance, and all being right. A beautifully sparse and quirky film, ‘The Man Without a Past’ also happens to be the very best type of film. Got all that? Let’s jump in.

The plot doesn’t intrude on the film at all
Yeah, there is a plot alright, but at no point in the film does it feel like a story is being played out. Despite the strange circumstances in which the main character finds himself, whilst watching you genuinely get the feeling that everything is happening in a very natural way. I have seen way too many films where it feels like a story is being forced out, where A must get to B before they get to C, and it tends to feel rushed. ‘The Man Without a Past’ manages to create an entirely natural world, where everyone reacts naturally to the unnatural circumstances.

Every single character is likable
Yes, you read that correctly. In a world where it seems every character in a TV show must be inherently crappy, ‘The Man Without a Past’ is immensely refreshing in that all of the characters, whether it is the unidentified main man, his Salvation Army love, his ‘landlord’ who strives to be more imposing than he is or even his ex-wife’s new boyfriend and his belief that a fight must be had, all of them are inherently likable. There aren’t any real unspoken motives, and all of the characters are almost autistic in their honesty. No one is stabbing anyone in the back, no one is killing people because of good motives. Even the bank robber has a genuine and understandable reason for his crime.

It is filmed in the most humble and sparse way
This is not a film of camera whizzery and trickery. As opposed to modern day blockbusters that are dependent on special effects to keep interest, ‘The Man Without a Past’ is filmed as if the camera was almost a hindrance. In this respect, it is a reflection of the honesty of the film, and the characters within. A story is being told, which is exactly what cinema should be about. Many times this film reminded me of why I love Kieslowski so much, as he has a similar style of letting the dialogue do the work. Finland obviously lends itself to this style, and the combination is both comforting and compelling.

The guy gets the girl
Yeah, underneath all of this rubbish about likable characters, sparse camera work and bank robbing, I’m a sap who wants to see happy endings now and then. When his identity is restored and the main character heads back to his home town, there is a sense of sadness, an almost inevitability about a morose ending. So when he heads back to his new home and reunites with the woman he loves, there is overwhelming happiness. Much in the same way that the end of ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ is so glorious, this ending is beautiful because we all want things to work out in the end. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t, but there’s no denying that we all want to get the girl that we want the most.

‘The Man Without a Past’ isn’t a flashy film. It isn’t packed with intense monologues or memorable one liners. No one dies (for long anyway), there are no explosions and the only thing that could be considered high octane about it is the constant smoking of all the characters. Despite this, it provides the perfect template for exactly what I want cinema to be. A reflection of how I want life to be. Sure, I don’t want to be mugged and lose my identity, but do I want to encounter kind people, live in humble comfort and end up with the girl I love? Of course I do.