After he's beaten nearly to death by thugs in a park, a man (Peltola) awakens with no memory of who he is or what he did in his former life. Met with indifference by authorities, the bandaged man ("M") recuperates on the outskirts of Helsinki with the help of a destitute couple and eventually finds friendship — and romance — with Salvation Army worker Irma (Outinen). Will his newfound contentment give way to despair when he learns his true identity?
Finnish auteur Kaurismaki puts a heartrendingly fresh twist on the amnesia theme with this entry, a superb mix of deadpan black humor and lower-class anguish that somehow lifts the spirits. It's impossible not to pity Peltola's stone-faced amnesiac, and Outinen's inexpressive Army savior, but Kaurismaki keeps his bleak twists of fate from sinking into hopelessness and futility. With the barest of dialogue and great generosity of spirit, "The Man Without a Past" earns every heartbreaking laugh, and makes spareness and scarcity seem almost virtuous.