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Heaven? No, this is Helsinki and it’s fascinating

The lights are bright in Helsinki, at least the selectively focused sunlight and electric glow that illuminates the lonely, longing characters in Aki Kaurismäki’s films. “Fallen Leaves,” the Finnish writer-director’s 20th film, continues its run at the Music Box Theater this week, with at least two more theaters being added (one in Evanston, the other in Wilmette) starting Friday. It’s one of the filmmaker’s funniest and most stripped-back achievements – an 80-minute romantic tale that seduces with its simplicity, unfixed time frame (the characters listen to reports of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the radio, but the radio is often half a century out of date) and commitment to the essentials.

It emerges as the story of a woman, a man, a dog, and a vaguely hostile socioeconomic urban environment. Music permeates “Fallen Leaves,” and a Finnish version of “Mambo Italiano” fills out the soundtrack at one point. First, we meet Ansa (Alma Pöysti, a perpetual marvel and the emotional center of the film), who works at a grocery store and is fired for stealing something that was about to be thrown in the trash anyway. He moves on to washing dishes in a bar (a California Pub, not reminiscent of California) and then to a factory.

By this time he met Holappa (a sort of middle mix of Jussi Vatanen, Ryan Gosling and James Stewart), a chronic drinker and smoker. Reason? One word: Finland. Alma’s confidant (Nuppu Koivu) explains that all men are pigs, but Alma thinks this description is unfair to pigs. They don’t really mean it, but they know their fair share of hard-shelled Finns who don’t have much in the way of emotional access.

One night at the karaoke bar, Holappa spies Alma and vice versa. Their first real conversation comes later. I’ve never been to Finland, but any current or former Minnesota resident living among the social-emotional Scandinavian traditions of awkward silence punctuated by occasional misjudgments about obscure conversations will recognize every second of the behavior in “Falling Leaves.”

Here’s a sample of the small talk between Holappa and his equally tight-lipped factory mate (Janne Hyytiäinen):

“I’m depressed.”

“From where?”

“Because I drink too much.”

“Then why are you drinking?”

(Pause) “Because I’m depressed.” The exchange is a perfect Kaurismäki patter, delivered by actors smart enough to know that the “blind spot” can contain many shadows.

Chance encounters and random terrible or positive chances shape all of the director’s portraits. A phone number written on the note disappears almost immediately; a near-offscreen tragedy involving a passing tram; These things happen, no big deal, but they change the course of the central couple’s lives. Together with long-time cinematographer Timo Salminen, who has worked with Kaurismäki for 40 years, the director creates a bittersweetly comic panorama of faces in bars, on the street, in bed, surrounded by darkness with a vivid, hardly realistic intensity.

Sometimes darkness takes over, as in Kaurismäki’s previous, extremely gritty film, “The Match Factory Girl.” “Falling Leaves,” on the contrary, masterfully strikes a balance between darkness and light, grit and optimism. There is a hidden buoyancy at work. Despite everything, love triumphs, and when Alma winks at her newly recovered friend with her newly found stray dog ​​by her side, it’s as if the sun is shining in all the skies of Helsinki.

As Ibsen said of Hedda Gabler, Pöysti is perfect as a worn-out woman, full of poetry from beginning to end. Everyone in a Kaurismäki film has the same glimmer of poetry underneath their “Finnish Jack Webb Low School of Acting” exterior. This also goes for Alma’s newly adopted stray dog, who wanders through this melancholy charming story. And she decides to stay.

“Falling Leaves” — 3.5 stars (out of 4)

No MPA rating (some languages, multiple annoying pauses)

Running time: 1:20

How to watch: Currently performing at the Music Box Theatre, AMC Evanston 12 and Wilmette Theatre.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

excitement @phillipstribune



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