' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Shadows in Paradise (1986)

Friday, February 09, 2024

Friday's Old Fashioned: Shadows in Paradise (1986)

“I’m not going to die behind the wheel,” declares an unnamed garbageman (Esko Nikkari) as he advises in monosyllabically impassioned terms about starting his own trash collecting company. “Then where?” wonders his younger co-worker Nikander (Matti Pellonpää). The unnamed garbageman replies: “Behind a desk.” Oh Lord, it’s hilarious, in the grimmest possible way, that line of Noah Emmerich’s in “The Truman Show” about how he’d kill for a desk job taken to the most mordant of extremes, like the journey from blue collar to white collar is as epic as crossing the Matterhorn, and evocative of the deadpan humor coursing through “Shadows in Paradise” and how it is firmly entrenched between not knowing whether to laugh or to cry. That’s how Nikander looks, in fact, when his co-worker’s dream of dying behind a desk goes unrealized when he suddenly kicks the bucket, like he’s caught in the purgatory between laughing at the cruelty, or crying from the absurdity, or maybe the other way around. Instead, he gets drunk, gets in a fight, and gets put in jail for the night.

Part one of writer/director Aki Kaurismaki’s so-called Proletariat Trilogy refuses to sentimentalize, low wage work or anything else, for that matter. Like Nikander being denied entry to a fancy restaurant, he understands his place in the world, on the outside looking in, haunting, you might say, the dim shadows of paradise. This could have rendered his character a rebel, and the supermarket checkout clerk, Ilona (Kati Outinen) with whom he meets cute does, in fact, steal a lockbox flush with cash when she is unceremoniously laid off. Yet, if this suggests a crime movie, two lovers on the run, Nikander instead schemes a way to give the money back. He does this as a romantic gesture, though what they have, it really isn’t romantic at all, as she sort of comes to tolerate him more than love him. (For their first date, he takes her to a bingo hall, the G-rated, straight-faced Nordic version of Travis Bickle taking Betsy to the adult movie.) No, Nikander’s emergent friendship with his cellmate (Sakari Kuosmanen) during that night in jail ultimately proves as important as his relationship with Ilona, misfits, all of them, who find some semblance of strength in solidarity against a world that doesn’t necessarily even seem to want them. 

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