It’s been six years since droll, dour Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s last film, the set-in-France “Le Havre,” and the plight of refugees in Europe dramatized in that film has only gotten worse. Kaurismäki’s style, however, has remained much the same over a near 35-year career that has included “Leningrad Cowboys Go America” (1989) and “The Man Without a Past” (2002).
Like these cult favorites, “The Other Side of Hope” offers long takes of near affectless characters enduring the absurd injustices of fate and the heartlessness of their fellow humans. But his pessimism, always mercurial, seems to have mellowed, and that makes this film both more pleasing and less powerful.
In “Hope,” Kaurismäki returns to Finland, which he has always envisioned as a place where the cars, clothes, music, and furniture are all stuck in the 1950s and the people are all stuck in a state of whimsical ennui. But newcomer Khaled (Sherwan Haji) can’t afford the luxury of anomie. He is a Syrian refugee first seen emerging soot-covered from a pile of coal in a cargo ship. He had hidden there to escape a gang of skinheads in Gdansk and then found himself en route to Helsinki.
This is part of the harrowing account he relates to a sympathetic Finnish immigration official. After most of his family had been killed in Aleppo, he tells her, he and his sister fled the country, during which they survived perilous border crossings, treacherous human traffickers, and hostile natives. Then they were separated at the Hungarian border and all he wants to do now is find her. As achingly played by Haji, Khaled relates this with a low-key rage and desperation that intensifies the horror. Nonetheless, he is sent to a processing center with other refugees whose stories are equally tragic, and there awaits his fate.
Meanwhile, in a parallel narrative, the middle-aged, Willy Loman-esque salesman Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen) leaves his wife, sells his stock, bets all his money in a stud poker game, and, in a rare instance of unpunished good fortune in a Kaurismäki movie, wins a bundle. This he invests in a seedy restaurant with the unpromising name “The Golden Pint” and tries to turn the place — with its three eccentric, incompetent employees — into a profitable investment.
As is his wont, Kaurismäki operates with minimalist deliberation and a measured pace — the first line of dialogue doesn’t come until nearly 10 minutes into the film, it’s delivered by a puppet on a TV show. More than an hour passes before Khaled and Wikström’s stories intersect, and though it would be an exaggeration to say each redeems the other, in this film the other side of hope is not despair, but decency.
THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE
Written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki. Starring Sherwan Haji, Sakari Kuosmanen. At the Brattle. 98 minutes. Unrated (smoking, drinking, hate crimes, dark Finnish humor). In English, Finnish, and Arabic, with subtitles.