The World is at war, people are dying. There’s loneliness and grief in continuing to wake up, take the morning bus to work, coming back home after the day. This is the daily journey of two loners Ansa (Alma Pöysti) and Hollapa (Jussi Vatanen), until their lives intersect in Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves. Funny, achingly sad and life-affirming all within 81 minutes, Fallen Leaves- which won the Jury Prize at Cannes- is a compact jewel of a film, one that makes you want to stay with its characters a little longer after its over. (Also read: Paradise review: A marriage is put to test in Prasanna Vithanage’s tightly controlled drama)
Set in Helsinki, the capital of Finland, we first meet Ansa as she goes about her day as a supermarket worker, returns home to her kitchen table where the radio airs depressing news about the war in Ukraine. Soon, she will be caught stealing expired food. Meanwhile, Hollapa is losing his job at the construction site somewhere near by. He struggles to remain sober. Why, asks his friend Huotari (a scene-stealing Janne Hyytiainen), and Hollapa says because he’s depressed. The two friends decide to go to a karaoke bar, where Hollapa locks eyes with Hansa for the first time. Both are instantly drawn to each other in their shy, benumbed and shared fatigue for the world- and must meet again.
Precise and minimalist in design
Fallen Leaves weaves the destinies of these two souls in amusing, unconfirmed ways. Working with cinematographer Timo Salminen and production designer Ville Grönroos, the director invites his viewers in the brightly coloured, minimalist spaces where these characters lead deep inner lives. No words are required for them to convey how their existential ennui fill the air. The rhythm and precision with which Kaurismaki’s mise-en-scène unfolds is a thing of unending delight- little exposition and more close-ups, with the specificity of time and space as important as ever. There’s a predicament which informs this film, balanced with a gentle detachment. Not much has changed for the working class citizens in many countries, even after all these years. Kaurismäki treats them with dignity and yearning. “I have the time, but not the money,” is how Ansa states it best.
With so little to elaborate, Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen still give wonderfully nuanced performances. Ansa and Hollapa are a screen couple for the ages; these are two people who try and fail, but never stop trying another time. Vatanen in particular, is hilarious and endearing throughout: that small smile on his face which appears after talking to Ansa is one of the most moving scenes I have seen at the cinema this year.
With plenty of hat tips to classic films from Robert Bresson and Charlie Chaplin, Fallen Leaves finds Aki Kaurismäki at his most accessible, romantic best. At the Dharamshala International Film Festival, where the film played to a packed house on the closing day, the audience cheered hard the moment its sublime denouement arrived. Kaurismäki has created a precious film, so full of life and feeling; one that is just able to scratch the corner of darkness to find hope and heart-stopping beauty.
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