Movie review: Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s humane and gravely funny film focuses on a Syrian immigrant in Helsinki.
Khaled, fleeing civil war in Syria, has wound up in Helsinki, where he lives in a dormitory with other refugees. One, Mazdak, who is from Iraq, coaches Khaled (Sherwan Haji) before his asylum hearing. Mazdak (Simon Hussein Al-Bazoon) tells his friend to be cheerful, since the Finns will deport “melancholics.”
That’s a deep, subtle joke, one of many in “The Other Side of Hope,” Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s humane and gravely funny new film. The national temperament, at least as Kaurismäki sketches it, is decidedly saturnine. Smiles are as rare as trips to the gym or the plastic surgeon. Maybe Mazdak is right, and the government hopes that admitting upbeat migrants will provide a needed infusion of joy.
Helsinki, as Khaled experiences it, has its dangers. He is menaced by racist skinheads and thwarted by literal-minded bureaucrats. Yet he also encounters the unsentimental, occasionally grudging kindness of ordinary Finns.
‘The Other Side of Hope,’ with Sherwan Haji, Simon Hussein Al-Bazoon, Sakari Kuosmanen. Written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki. 100 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. In Finnish, English and Arabic, with subtitles. SIFF Film Center.
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Khaled’s fortunes are entwined with those of Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen), a grumpy businessman whose apparent midlife crisis coincides with Khaled’s arrival. Wikstrom leaves his wife, quits his job, wins a lot of money in a poker game and buys a restaurant called the Golden Pint. He discovers Khaled sleeping near the garbage bins, and the two bloody each other’s noses, commencing a beautiful friendship.
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Kaurismäki’s approach is old-fashioned. The film has the stately pace and graceful precision of a movie from the 1930s, and democratic, anti-authoritarian politics that also evoke that era.
“The Other Side of Hope” addresses an urgent social problem — the European refugee crisis — and sets its story among what used to be called the common people. It’s at once honest and artful, a touching and clearsighted declaration of faith in people and in movies.