It's the second little gem in the year's most narrowly drawn indie niche: foreign films that have the word "man" in the title and begin with the lead character getting off a train. Following close at the heels of France's wonderful "Man on the Train," the Finnish "The Man Without a Past" pulls into the station to put another delightfully deadpan face on the mutability of identity.
Minutes after disembarking from a train somewhere near Helsinki, an unnamed traveler (Markku Peltola) is set upon by thugs, who knock him unconscious, rob him and leave him to his fate. The konk on the head strips him of his memory, and after the briefest of hospital visits, he's wandering the countryside alone and confused. Only a welder's mask, the unlikeliest of personal artifacts, serves as a clue to his former life.
Our hero falls in with a ramshackle community of Helsinki's poor -- scruffy but welcoming types who have improvised a quaint sub-society out of corrugated materials and a bit of industry. (Two of the more colorful residents: a morbidly obese accordionist and another fellow who lives in a dumpster, like Oscar the Grouch gone Finn.) Ostensibly, the stranger's stay here is just a temporary arrangement while he strives to regain his memory, but it doesn't take too long for us to figure out that his swift integration into this secondary environment is the movie's real story. Initially looked after by a generous, semiemployed family, the wayward welder eventually moves into his own "place," develops a strong attraction to a Salvation Army angel (Kati Outinen) and even inspires her accompanying band of street musicians to rock out a little more. (Dig that stellar, Euro-billy soundtrack!)
This isn't a world many genuine indigents would recognize, but sometimes it's OK for a movie to show us a reality that merely should exist. To vindicate a much-maligned term, it's a nice picture: A gruff landlord/procurer comes on like the new arrival's worst enemy, even as he's pulling strings to provide him with a better life; at his side is an allegedly vicious dog who proves to be anything but. By the time writer/director/producer Aki Kaurismäki gets around to revealing just who his mysterious protagonist is, we've grasped the essential point that it really doesn't matter anyway. The movie has already made its case that we should all treat each other with dignity, because we can never be sure who anyone is in the first place.