SHADOWS IN PARADISE (Aki Kaurismäki, 1986)

The launch of Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismäki’s “proletarian trilogy” (the other entries are Ariel, 1988, and The Match Factory Girl, 1990), Varjoja paratiisissa is characteristically quirky, terse and humorous while nonetheless hinting depths of loneliness and alienation below the surface of wage-slave working-class lives. It is a thin, minor piece, but indicative of the style with which Kaurismäki’s better work has since made us familiar. For those who haven’t yet experienced a Kaurismäki film, this one would be a good place to start. Consider it training wheels.
     In Helsinki, Nikander drives a garbage truck; Ilona is a supermarket cashier. (He used to be a butcher; she will become a department store saleswoman.) Early on, both are delivered a work-related blow that underscores the precariousness of their place in society. A co-worker aims to start his own garbage collection business and invites Nikander to be foreman; Nikander accepts, but before anything materializes the co-worker suffers a fatal heart attack. Meanwhile, Ilona is fired so that her boss can move his daughter, who has just graduated from high school, into Ilona’s probational spot. Although their relationship is a rocky one, Nikander and Ilona start dating. Prior to this, it is a sign of their vulnerability and humanity that Ilona cleans and bandages Nikander’s bleeding hand.
     The tawdriness of the setting, including the back of the supermarket where the garbage dumpsters are located, and the gloom of the Baltic Sea conspire to suggest the unpleasantness with which Nikander and Ilona, and so many others, must daily contend. (When Nikander asks friend Melartin to borrow some money to take out Ilona, Melartin breaks into his sleeping daughter’s piggy bank.) Nikander’s attempts to learn English at night occupy a place somewhere between filling (hence, killing) time and genuine aspiration.

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