Varjoja paratiiasissa

 (Aki Kaurismäki, Finland, 1986) 74 minutes


Director: Aki Kaurismäki
Producer: Mika Kaurismäki
Screenplay: Aki Kaurismäki
Cinematography: Timo Salminen
Editor: Raija Talvio
Matti Pellonpää (Nikander)
Kati Outinen (Ilona Rajamäki)
Sakari Kuosmanen (Melartin)
Esko Nikkari (Co-worker [Työkaveri])
Kylli Köngäs (Ilona's Girlfriend [Ystävätär])

Reviews and notes

1987 Toronto
2012 Thessaloniki
2017 Taipei
2018 Sydney

The film that set the blueprint for the Kaurismäki mode, Shadows in Paradise may run a mere 76 minutes, but one couldn’t mistake brevity for slightness, despite its wisp of a narrative. A garbage collector and supermarket cashier (regular players Matti Pellonpää and Kati Outinen) are brought together through circumstance and misfortune, their relationship tentatively blossoming in the face of dashed dreams and collective disappointments. Kaurismäki punctures the gloom of his muted palette with the occasional splash of primary colour, at once prefiguring the rigorous mise-en-scène that would become his stock in trade and the delicately negotiated possibility of a brighter future with which this beautiful miniature ends.
- Matthew Thrift, Sight and Sound.

Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki is a filmmaker's filmmaker. Most notably, he was often referenced by Jim Jarmusch, including the quintessential U.S. indie auteur crafting a segment of his brilliant Night on Earth as a tribute to Kaurismäki. It's easy to see why. Jarmusch has spotted a kindred spirit in this sardonic European creator. His wry stories of regular people quietly floundering through life don't follow regular Hollywood story logic, and his detached filming style gives the impression of behavior observed rather than concocted. As the name the Proletariat Trilogy, made between 1986 and 1990 suggests, the films focus mainly on working-class heroes, the garbage men and the factory workers who aren't in the mainstream and yet keep it flowing all the same.

The first feature in this trilogy, Shadows in Paradise, makes one wonder if the appreciation goes both ways, as there are a few items of business in the film reminiscent of Jarmusch's 1984 breakthrough Stranger than Paradise. Of course, there is the title, but there is also a forced romance that only really gathers steam on an impromptu road trip, itself precipitated in part by illegal acts. On the way back from it, the female lead Ilona (Kati Outinen) even says her original intention was to run away to Florida, though she had heard there was nothing there but other Finns and "Donald Ducks." Jarmusch's vision of paradise was Florida, as well, and his two male protagonists could pass for Donald Ducks in some circles.

The problem with Florida as a promised land for Ilona is that she has enough of nothing at home, so why go all the way around the world to find more? The sad-eyed blonde caught the eye of the awkward Nikander (Matti Pellonpää) while working as a cashier at the grocery store. Nikander is a garbage man who seemingly dreams of something better. He takes an English course that sounds like it could be for potential hotel managers. His friend at work offers him the chance of a better life by jumping ship and joining the new garbage company he's going to open, but no sooner does the older man say he doesn't want to die driving a garbage truck than he has a heart attack while collecting the morning's trash. Opportunity lost for Nikander.

There is a desperation in Nikander's advances on Ilona that is both sad and comical. He truly doesn't know what to do around her, and their first date is cut short when he takes her out for bingo and comes off as a bore. Yet, when she loses her job and steals the company cash box, Nikander is the only person Ilona can think of to help her out. Before long, she's moved in with him, having nowhere else to go. It's a romance of convenience. Any tenderness that passes between them is at first begrudging. Yet, as time goes on, Ilona does begin to care, and when Nikander finally gets aggressive and starts asserting his feelings, he actually becomes the man she wanted him to be all along. Coming to an agreement on love doesn't immediately transform their lives - as Nikander describes it, using the American idiom, it's "small potatoes" - but yet they manage to find some kind of security in their humble existence.

Portraying characters such as these could so easily become cruel parody, but Kaurismäki is never making fun of his creations, even when he is enjoying a laugh at their expense. Nikander in particular bears the brunt of the director's comic tendencies. Prone to outbursts of macho anger, he's at times tossed into the street and whacked upside the head with a wooden plank, as ineffectual at violence as he is at love. Yet there is something in his grim, silent determination that makes the audience root for the schlub despite it all. Karuismäki does give his lovers a way out, yet one also can't help but think no one will likely even notice they are gone. They themselves are the shadows of paradise, the unseen ghosts that come and go without much impact.

One of the funniest elements of the Kaurismäki style is the deadpan delivery. Outside of Nikander's bursts of anger, there is very little modulation to the emotions in Shadows. Love and sadness are delivered with the same stony face, the same low manner of speaking.
- Jamie S. Rich, DVD Talk, 25 September 2008.

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