It’s unlikely that the most culturally ignorant U.S. president in living memory would ever have dreamed of choosing a film by Finnish eccentric Aki Kaurismäki as appropriate Dorito-dinner accompaniment in the White House — for one thing, his borderline illiteracy means the subtitling would probably make him Sad! But if such a downright un-American dish were ever to be on the menu, it’s doubly certain that he would not have chosen “The Other Side of Hope,” Kaurismäki’s wonderful new Berlinale competition title that makes a stonefaced, droll but paradoxically urgent case for a truth that desperately needs to survive these post-truth times: people are people and borders are bullshit.
The border in question this time is that of his homeland, but this is the second verse of Kaurismäki’s immigrant song: his last title, which shares more than a little DNA with this one, came six long years ago and was set in the French port city of “Le Havre” (there is reportedly a third film to come in this “port trilogy”). But though they share common themes, and of course the Kaurismäkian staples of a non-naturalistically absurdist aesthetic and bone-deep humanism, “The Other Side of Hope” feels somehow different, more pointed, keener-edged. It’s a sobering moment when you realize it actually may be completely of a piece with everything that has come before; it’s the world that has changed, and unless you are made of stone or have been so woke so long as to have been operating under crisis conditions for decades, you probably have too. Somehow one of the effects of our current state of topsy-turviness has been to bring us closer into alignment with Kaurismäki’s skewed vision; if his movies are all, in their way, like pictures hanging crooked on a wall, with “The Other Side of Hope” we don’t have to tilt our heads anymore: the whole house has moved around us.
There are several escapes charted in the film and it’s a mark of Kaurismäki’s expansive humanism that though some have life-or-death stakes and others not so much, all are treated with equivalent levels of wry compassion. Finnish sadsack Wikström (Kaurismäki regular Sakari Kuosmanen) might be fleeing an unfulfilled life as a shirt salesman married to an alcoholic wife (whom he leaves in a wordless scene in which symbolic gestures and jokey compositions speak volumes), and Syrian Khaled (Sherwan Haji) might be trying to escape Aleppo as the city is pulverized around his ears, but the twin storylines are treated evenhandedly, even before the strands converge.
Khaled, face blacked with coal dust emerges from a slagpile being transported by a freighter. He slips off the ship, which we later discover he ended up on unintentionally, and makes his way to a Helsinki police station to seek asylum. From there he ends up in a detention center, where he befriends cheerful Iraqi Mazdak (Simon Hussein Al-Bazoon) whom Khaled enlists in trying to find the beloved sister from whom he was separated on his odyssey across Europe. Khaled is interviewed/interrogated to establish his case for refugee status, but in a scene of breathtaking casual cruelty (when he wants to, Kaurismäki can weaponize his sense of the absurd into a portrait of impersonal bureaucracy that pulls no punches), his petition is denied by Finnish court, and he is scheduled to be deported. Instead, he makes a run for it.
In parallel, we follow native Helsinkian Wikström, as he leaves his wife, sells off his entire stock of shirts, gambles that capital in a high-stakes poker game and miraculously wins (perhaps his opponents should have known better than to take on a Kaurismäki hero: his poker face is unbeatable). With that money he buys a dismal, failing restaurant called The Golden Pint, inheriting the staff along with it: a terrible cook (Janne Hyytiäinen), an unprepossessing doorman (Ilkka Koivula) and an unsmiling waitress (Nuppu Koivu). When he discovers Khaled sleeping rough outside, having been attacked by a skinhead gang (the film is not sentimental about the fundamental decency of all Finns, by any means), the two men fight. But somehow, having bopped each other on the nose serves as a platform for an unquestioned, laconic friendship: Khaled joins the restaurant’s staff, and Wikström organizes fake papers and, later, helps in the search for his sister.
The wonderful, jaunty Finnish-folk-heavy soundtrack, much of it revealed in witty slow pans to be originating within the scene, is provided by Tuomari Nurmio on box guitar and, along with the anachronistic set design in which a computer printer can sit alongside an ancient analog typewriter and yet everything looks like the 1970s, it gives the film its distinctly Kaurismäkian flavor (the gorgeous grain of 35mm film doesn’t hurt either). But formalist drollery is seldom deployed in this pointed a manner: the episodic, tragicomic day-by-day rhythms of the film tame the monolithic, intimidating “immigration issue” down to the personal, the granular, the defiantly humdrum. It might sound like the title refers to despair, but really other side of hope is simply where you end up when you migrate, mentally or physically, to a place that was previously only a dream or an idea. You find, as you wake up there day after day that you have to do concrete, non-conceptual things like find a job or run a business or help a friend.
Wikström is not an activist, it’s unlikely he ever went on a march or petitioned the government. As with all embattled-ordinary-guy Kaurismäki heroes, the minutiae of his life looms far too large to leave time for much else. But he helps Khaled, because Khaled has become part of that fabric, and that is what decent people do. And Khaled participates in Wikström’s schemes, however hare-brained (the restaurant’s ill-fated makeover as a sushi joint is a perfectly hilarious short-film-within-the-film) for much the same reason. You can see “The Other Side of Hope” as reductive of a hugely complex issue, simplistic in its representationalism and not a little naive, but we’ve all lost so much innocence recently that maybe this stiff dose of warmhearted, sad-eyed, straight-faced naivete is exactly what we need. [A-]