Saturday, April 12, 2014

Road North (Tie pohjoiseen)

ROAD NORTH (Tie pohjoiseen)         B             
Finland  (110 mi)  2012  d:  Mika Kaurismäki         Official site [Japan]

Mika is the older but less known of the Kaurismäki brothers, both among the founders of modern Finnish cinema.  Unlike the internationally acclaimed Dardennes and the Coens, the two Finns rarely work together, where the better known Aki began as an assistant, screenwriter and actor in his brother Mika’s earliest works, whose first film THE LIAR (1980) was an overnight sensation.  Mika was inspired by Finnish film historian Peter von Bagh’s book History of Cinema, studying cinema in Munich at the Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen before returning to make films in Finland.  In the 1980’s he and his brother, along with various colleagues and friends, co-founded the Villealfa Filmproductions, a no frills, low-budget film studio that by the end of the decade became the third biggest production company in Finnish film history, while Mika also co-founded the only film festival north of the Arctic Circle, the Midnight Sun Film Festival in 1986.  By the 90’s however, Mika and Aki started to produce their films separately through their own production companies, with Mika living in Rio de Janeiro since 1992 mostly making documentary films, where perhaps his most memorable is TIGERO:  A FILM THAT WAS NEVER MADE (1994) with Sam Fuller and Jim Jarmusch.  This script was written in the 80’s, where it was originally entitled Road South, traveling from the north of Italy south to Sicily, but the project fell through when the lead actor had scheduling difficulties, so it’s had a long gestation period.  In total, Mika has done seven road movies, culminating with this film, which is built around a lovable star, Vesa-Matti Loiri, Finland’s most popular actor, comedian, and singer, best known for his role portraying Uuno Turhapuro, a comedic character that originated in early 1970’s Finnish television, continuing his portrayal in a total of 20 movies between the years 1973 and 2004.

This darkly comic and touching road movie follows the unlikely scenario of a ne'er-do-well, outcast father Leo (Vesa-Matti Loiri) absent for 35 years finally paying a visit to his long-lost son Timo (Samuli Edelmann), where there’s obviously more than just a gap of time missing between these two polar opposites.  Timo is seen onstage playing classical piano for a Sibelius Piano Quintet, Jean Sibelius - Piano Quintet in G Minor, JS 159 ... - YouTu (5:26), while Leo, who has a ticket for the performance, is drunk and asleep on his doorstep by the time Timo arrives home, announcing he is his father while offering him a gesture of good will, an already half-open bottle of whiskey.  While Timo is something of a joyless workaholic concert pianist separated from his wife and daughter, largely due to his incessant need for practice when he is home and prolonged absences on tour away from home, Leo is more of a good-natured opportunist and scoundrel used to taking advantage of people and situations, traveling on a Paavo Nurmi Finnish passport, where he thrives on the moment.  While Leo is a consummate liar, often getting lost in his own fabrications, Timo reluctantly agrees to accompany him on what he thinks will be a brief afternoon jaunt out of Helsinki to visit a sister he never knew he had.  Instead this turns into a hilarious romp through the Finnish countryside as they head north to the Lapland driving a stolen Pontiac convertible.  While Timo is under the mistaken assumption that his father may fill in some missing details about his past, Leo is more interested in just having a good time, where spending time together with family is all that matters, which interestingly enough, is a similar theme in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (2013), an exploration of America’s heartland that features another grizzled character in Bruce Dern.  Unlike Nebraska, which probably plays better in America, this film probably plays better outside Finland, as it exports a kind of broad-based Finnish humor rarely seen in the rest of the world, built upon fabricated storytelling and constant misdirection, as Leo is forever taking advantage of his son’s naïve gullibility.

Kaurismäki’s dark-edged humor has at its roots the absurdity of Eastern European rule, and while never occupied by the Soviets after World War II, Finland was forced to cede much of their land to the Soviets, returned a decade later. This placed them in a precarious position of being a nation caught between the East and the West, where few exploit that humor better than the Kaurismäki’s, who in films like Lights in the Dusk (Laitakaupungin Valot) (2006), or my absolute favorite Kaurismäki film ever made, Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana (Pidä huivista kiinni, Tatjana) (1994), often show remnants of an Eastern European mindset, adding stoic faces, rigid authoritarian rules, and a world filled with eternal gloom, often broken up by a wacky delight in Elvis, early rock ‘n’ roll music, and of course, drinking.  Unlike the wordlessness or typical deadpan in other Aki Kaurismäki films, Loiri couldn’t be more outlandishly appealing as an oversized oaf, who despite all his character flaws, means well.  The guy is a walking storyteller wherever he goes, where stories literally pour out of his mouth at the most inopportune times.  While Leo’s amusing practice of Finnish custom, visiting people unannounced and just walking right into their homes, has an endearing quality to it, as the film provides a nice observational feel where it’s continually feeding off of this forced intimacy of the two characters in a car, where they’re constantly at odds with their surroundings and the people they meet.  While the film is an odyssey into the family’s past, the scene of the film is an impromptu performance at a typically empty hotel bar where the father and son break into a superb rendition of “Autumn Leaves,” or “Dead Leaves” with Finnish lyrics, Tapio Heinonen - Kuolleet Lehdet ( Les feuilles mortes ) - You YouTube (4:12), followed by “Condemned to Walk,” Vesa-Matti Loiri & Samuli Edelmann - Tuomittuna kulkemaan  YouTube (3:56), where Loiri’s deep bass voice expressing heartbreak in the land of a thousand lakes works brilliantly, even as they pick up a couple of girls afterwards, adding a touch of romanticism to the absurdity of their adventure.  While the tone of wacky adventure is mostly fun, the film is wonderfully nuanced with small and intimate moments among the many roadside attractions that sensitively explores larger themes of family roots and redemption, magnifying the importance of shared moments, beautifully elevating the material with a touch of eloquence from the music of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in G Major, D 894 (Op. 78), opening movement, Molto moderato e cantabile, Franz Schubert.Sonata G-dur.1.Molto moderato e cantabile  YouTube (16:51).

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