I’m assuming ‘shadows’ and ‘paradise’ are relative terms in this case, and in the department of irresistible word association one might imagine this film alternately titled Stranger Than Paradise. “Life’s a bitch, and then you die,” comes to mind when a middle-aged garbage man drops dead on the job, days away from achieving his dream of starting his own garbage service. Even his partner Nikander, an ex-butcher turned garbageman, seems to casually accept this brutal working class reality as he observes his fallen comrade, expressionless. This particularly dour mood casts its spell on Finnish writer/director Aki Kaurismaki’s Shadows in Paradise, which is fitting for a film that’s more about what’s not going on than what is. What is going on, mostly, is a love story between Nikander, a lonely garbageman, and Illona, a supermarket worker going on her third job in as many months, though I’m not sure you could get them to admit it. Characters are mostly silent and speak with restraint if they do at all, usually in the form of a brief, straight-forward question or answer (“Where?” is a common refrain, perhaps making a point about Helsinki’s night life). When they do speak, however, Kaurismaki makes it count, and the dialogue anchors the film’s unique, deader-than-dead-pan sense of humor, employing minimalism not just in framing and editing but in acting as well, offering consistency in its peculiar, disaffected tone. Close-ups are favored, and one of the joys of Shadows is the ambiguous effect its actors (Matti Pellonpaa and Kati Outinen, respectively), whose sullen, bored, tired, and gloomy faces give off the feeling that life sucks but something just might happen, but they rarely show or act out, leaving the viewer mostly in the dark. This gives any moment of decisive action (i.e. a kiss, words, violence) significant weight, which in turn enhances the drama or humor drastically, carefully, and effectively. For instance, when asked by his new partner why he’s not at home in bed with Ilona, Nikander responds, earnestly, “Horror. Fear. This job.” Sound funny, yet? Well it is, kind of. I guess it’s mostly just truthful and sad, until it’s time to step on a Soviet cruise ship.
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