Starring Sherwan Haji. In Finnish, English, and Arabic, with English subtitles. Rated PG
Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki is a deadpan stylist often compared to Jim Jarmusch, but hints of David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino drift into this beautifully composed comedy, which manages to hit raw nerves on the refugee crisis in northern Europe while poking fun at Scandinavian reserve.
Picking up themes suggested by his last effort, Le Havre—in which an African refugee bonds with an old shoeshiner in that French port city—this darkly colourful tale centres on one Syrian escapee (compelling first-timer Sherwan Haji) who washes up in Helsinki after an almost accidental sea voyage. Life in a detention centre, even one run by placid Scandinavians, is no bowl of hummus.
Khaled’s journey continues to go awry, and not in the expected ways. For him, salvation comes in the form of the film’s other subject, an aging gambler named Wikström (Kaurismäki regular Sakari Kuosmanen), who abruptly leaves his hard-drinking wife and boring job and impetuously purchases a restaurant in which the employees are just as unpromising as the menu. Basically, they’re a bunch of weirdos and dead-enders, but are impressed by Wikström’s fortitude, and eventually, when the two main stories meet up, supportive of his adoption of Khaled as an “illegal” who needs friendship, and food.
The budding restaurateur stands as an old-school bulwark against skinheads, reactionaries, and people with no sense of humour. He also helps Khaled search for his sister, the only other family survivor of a massacre from above in their hometown of Aleppo. With its gloomy colours and homely fluorescent lighting, the movie constantly shifts between gentle, low-key humour and more threatening intrusions. That shouldn’t work, but it does. Kaurismäki seems to be saying, in three languages, “This is the world today; look how beautifully ugly it is!”