JOKI (Jarmo Lampela, 2001)

I do not particularly care for narrative films, those that “tell a story” visually; I rarely see a point to them or a point to liking them. I find such films enormously constrained and inarticulate, drawing viewers’ attention to plot and characters to mask the fact that there is little or no thematic development about. Yet Roberto Rossellini’s composite film Paisà (1946) was full of stories. It presented a series of six short stories in order to essay Italy during the last years of World War II; including a diversity of regions, the cumulative portrait unhinged conventional (linear) narrative for the sake of Rossellini’s pursuit of a stirring theme. Rossellini visited the past—the thirteenth century—to bring this kind of “fragmented” film to fruition in his masterpiece (and one of the two or three greatest Italian films ever), Francesco, giullare di Dio (1950), whose episodic structure teases the forward momentum of the communal events involving the future St. Francis and his disciples into a stillness, a composure, a vertical sense of time that releases the men’s mortal anchoring into eternity, which the film’s celebrated final shot, an upward pan to the heavens, encapsulates. Rossellini’s reconciliation of the fragmentation of his narrative and the wholeness of the Franciscan community may be the highest accomplishment of this wondrously moving film. In its important if less remarkable way, Jarmo Lampela’s Joki (The River), from Finland, continues mining the same vein of cinematic adventure.

How odd to compare Joki, among the bleakest of films, with Francesco, one of the most radiant. Indeed, however facile it may seem, the following comparison between Lampela’s film and the films of fellow Finn Aki Kaurismäki struck me: whereas Kaurismäki’s are bleak in style but resilient, even resurgent in vision, Joki is resilient, even resurgent in narrative details—a mother and her infant son are, at the last, saved from drowning in a river, and the film ends with the happiest romantic couple in the film,—the film’s vision is nonetheless interminably bleak. This bleakness is pieced together not by the film’s six separate short stories or episodes but by their crisscrossings and collisions that toss each seemingly happy moment or event into a drowning river of pessimism. Not one of the stories is especially interesting in itself, but the result of their interaction is compelling. And bleak.

The more or less framing story of Joki involves a teenaged Good Samaritan working frantically one Saturday to save a suicidal girl, scarcely older than he, from walking into the river with her baby. The girl Anni’s act is inexplicable until near the end of the film, at which point it becomes comprehensible and reasonable—not, as some who disdain individual self-determinism cleverly and heartlessly put it, “a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” but perhaps the only resolution possible to an impossible life situation. The wonder of this film, for me, is its compassion for the boy, whose life is potentially ruined if he fails to save either or both the girl or her baby. He saves both, we learn at the end of the film, first (we see this at the beginning) by coaxing her to give him her infant son, which (poignantly) he says he will put down in safety “near” her, and then, at the last, plunging into the water to retrieve her disappeared reality, which, like a good boy scout, he revives on earth, near her son, by mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The savior’s exhaustion certifies the sweetness of his soul, but the film will not let the matter rest. This, coupled with the compassion for the boy that he fully conveys, helps certify Lampela as an emotionally complex filmmaker.

Through filmmaking of an extraordinarily high order Lampela suggests that the boy, whom we love, whom we appreciate, whom we wish to hug for all his pain and selfless effort, may have done the wrong thing. Perhaps it would have been better for Anni, who lives in the same subsidized apartment building as he, if the boy had let her drown; but life is complex, and we people are (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse) generally simple, and there’s no way the boy could have known or even guessed this. If someone is going to drown, a normal boy is going to put his whole heart into a rescue attempt; staking a claim to compassion requires his doing this, and, in addition, adolescent boys feel driven to prove their manhood. (The rescue is played out as other boys and a girl are bungy-jumping in the town square of this mill town—an annual event.) But the life of the infant would have meant little had his mother drowned, and when she has been revived, in a haunting gesture, Anni turns her head to the ground as if to the grave that still has a hold on her. Moreover, in stunning jump cuts in reverse-run moments of her in the water before she goes under (the film is running backwards), we see Lampela using the resources of his medium to convey Anni’s continuing wish to drown. What cinema!

That’s not all. The closing of Anni’s story follows and, through the couple’s grown daughter who goes in and out of the rescue scene, crosses another episode about an elderly man, with cancer, in hospital whose wife joins him in the implementation of his “treatment will” so that he can die with something akin to dignity. For the most part, the hospital staff couldn’t care less about the man’s agony; we see him in insupportable pain, and the doctor, in athletic shoes from off some athletic field, blithely reassures him that the medication he is being given for his pain is “sufficient.” The collision between this man’s choice and Anni’s choice transforms the way we respond to the latter. Had Lampela not juxtaposed the two events, thickheaded I would never have even gone to a place in my head where Anni’s suicide attempt was anything but foolish. Lampela is a real artist; he gets even dullards like me to think.

He does other things pertaining to Anni that grabs us with intelligence. When Anni goes underwater there is a sonic boom from a fighter plane in the sky that marks a point in common—a point in time—in each of the stories or episodes. In short, we are constantly surprised that the composite narrative, which seemed to have been moving forward in a conventional (linear) way, has doubled back on itself on that same Saturday. After her appearance in the river, we see Anni earlier coming out of a supermarket and, later, in the supermarket and then coming out, as the event crisscrosses someone else’s story. The second time this happens we happily sigh, “Oh, this is after; it’s good Anni was rescued because she is back to a normal life with her son”—but she isn’t. Although this comes later in the film, it is happening before the drowning attempt, and when all this becomes clear we feel that the movie theater floor has been pulled out from under us, and we cannot remain smug about our superior understanding of whether people should or should not die, should or should not take their own lives—and in Anni’s case, the life of her baby as well. (It is my belief that most people condescend on the subject of suicide because they are defending themselves against the idea of their own suicide, which the other person’s suicide, if unconsciously, makes seem more possible.) Smugness is cheap; understanding, expensive, breaks the human bank—the heart.

Why does Anni commit suicide, at first intending to take her baby along with her? It’s complicated. For one thing, she is without money to live; her joint account has been blanked out by her son’s father. Their romance is over, and he has come back to their apartment, breaking the slide chain, to reclaim what he construes to be his property. But it’s more than that—so much more than that. Goaded by the passive, embarrassed presence of a male friend he has brought along to use “his” television set as payment for a debt owed, he treats her as if she had been his property. “How could I ever have loved that bitch?” he rhetorically asks his friend. We discover that the birth of the child is what sent the all-but-marital union of theirs south. We surmise that, before the baby, whom she, not he, wanted to keep (her crime, it would appear, is not to have had an abortion), the couple was happy; until the pregnancy, there was nothing to contest the terms he implicitly insisted they live by. Lampela is brutal—but to make a point. He juxtaposes this horrifically failed young couple with the happiest young couple imaginable—a boy and girl before pregnancy has struck. The film ends with their smiling and with double hickeys on their necks from their lovemaking the night before. One couple shows us how “happy” the other couple once was; the latter couple shows us how miserable the former couple may become. Shattering.

The other stories aren’t so happy, either.

There is a whole other level to the film, enrobing and permeating the six stories, that casts blame on the United States, which is variously represented, by a “New York” sweatshirt here, a gigantic Pepsi poster there, the bungy-jumping and a scheduled basketball game, the fighter pilot up in the skies (that in an earlier time might have been Soviet), and various attitudes we identify as closer to American than Scandinavian—such as virulent hatred of homosexuals. There is also a good deal of financial stress—enough to make us wonder what the impress here is of capitalism-driven globalization. Ultimately, the Italian film that Joki may most resemble, down to its core, is Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il grido (1957).

Joki is a good film, a very good film, but hardly a great one. Nevertheless, it’s leagues beyond the formally somewhat similar Amores Perros, the same year, by Alejandro González Iñárritu, where a car crash serves much the same function as the sonic boom does here. Joki won Jussis—Finland’s industry prizes—for best film, best director and best scenarist (Lampela again).

As with all bleak films, one may need to sneak into the theater a fortifying flask.

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