SBS TWO Screening Schedule
Tuesday 5 June, 9.30pm
Bad Family (2010)
Director: Aleksi Salmenperä
Starring: Ville Virtanen, Lauri Tilkanen, Pihla Viitala
Tuesday 19 June, 9.30pm
Forbidden Fruit (2009)
Director: Dome Karukoski
Starring: Amanda Pilke, Marjut Maristo, Malla Malmivaara
Tuesday 26 June, 9.30pm
The House of Branching Love (2009)
Director: Mika Kaurismäki
Starring: Elina Knihtilä, Hannu-Pekka Björkman, Anna Easteden
Finnish cinema has long been, and remains, a small but vital artistic discipline. The first feature made in the northern European territory, Teuvo Puro’s The Moonshiners, was shot in 1907, when Finland was still an autonomous part of Czarist Russia, and since Finland declared and won independence in 1917 the fledgling nation’s identity has been shaped in part by the images shown on its cinema screens. Through the silent era and after World War II, through a new wave of avant-garde influenced directors in the 1960s and into the revitalising 1980s, Finnish cinema has grown quietly but with its own viewpoint; even in 2011 there were just 31 films – 24 features and 7 documentaries – produced in the country of five million inhabitants.
In June SBS TWO will screen a small but illustrative season of recent Finnish film: Bad Family on Tuesday 5 June, Forbidden Fruit on Tuesday 19 June, and The House of Branching Love on Tuesday 26 June. The latter bears the most renowned surname in the country’s screen culture – Kaurismaki – but The House of Branching Love is from director Mika Kaurismaki, not his younger brother and former collaborator Aki. It is a typically Finnish outcome that the most famous surname in the nation’s film industry should in fact house two separate careers – it’s the kind of wry, downbeat occurrence that Aki Kaurismaki would visit in his own pictures.
After his eccentric early works, such as 1989’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America, and a suite of films that showed the Finnish capital of Helsinki from the grimmest blocks upwards, Aki Kaurismaki has ventured abroad, notably to France, where his picture released locally earlier this year, Le Havre, was set. To find his own space Mika has gone even further, relocating to Brazil two decades ago, a vastly different landscape that has often informed his long and eclectic career. The House of Branching Love is one of his intermittent returns to his homeland, and it has the juicily contemplative air of an expatriate weighing up his former home and compatriots.
From the uneasy initial shots, where a couple eye each other off as they silently watch the shared artifacts of their marriage go up in flames on a bonfire, it’s a film about people trying to calmly deal with the unexpected. The middle-aged pair is Juhani (Hannu-Pekka Bjorkman) and Tuula (Elina Knihtila), who are co-habitating in their family home as they wait to sell it and go their separate ways, a situation that allows them to exchange drily vituperative insults several times a day. Juhani is, naturally, a relationship counselor, but he hardly practices what he preaches – “until death do you part,” he says before symbolically cutting a chair in two with a chainsaw.
Their lives become truly complicated when Juhani hires Nina (Anna Esteden) to pretend to be his new girlfriend. Her presence brings together the other strands of the story, which revolves around a crime scene’s missing money, various gangsters and two libidinous police officers. The film, one of Mika Kaurismaki’s best, becomes both madcap and telling, and as the unlikely cast are assembled harsh truths are revealed that show how the past is never truly put aside.
In writer/director Aleksi Salmenpera’s Bad Family – a project produced by Aki Kaurismaki – the strictures of family become a nightmare for a controlling father. The tripwire intense Mikael (Ville Virtanen), a successful lawyer who in the name of caring for his family tries to oversee and steer every aspect of his children’s lives, finds that even a hint of waywardness threatens to unhinge him. When his first wife dies a teenage daughter he barely knows, Tilda (Piila Viitahla), comes to live with Mikael, his second wife, and his teenage son from his initial marriage, Dani (Lauri Tilkanen).
After a brutal family dinner, where Mikael’s remembrance of Tilda and Dani’s late mother shatters the civility, the patriarch becomes convinced that the half brother and sister are sleeping together under his roof. Mikael, who almost wrenches a rowing machine to pieces as he becomes increasingly obsessed, discovers that his imagination is stronger than his self-control, and Salmenpera initially mines the same uneasy comic terrain that David O. Russell traversed for Flirting with Disaster and Spanking the Monkey. The film becomes unhinged to a degree, like Mikael, and his attempt at a solution is extreme, but the three central performances – from Virtanen, Viitahla and Tilkanen – are exceptional. They keep this black comedy eminently watchable.
More than 100,000 Finns are adherents of the conservative Lutheran revival movement Laestadianism, a group that takes the writings of the Bible literally and is staunchly opposed to alcohol, television, premarital sex and contraception. With its images of fertile fields and closed communities that recall Peter Weir’s Witness, Dome Karukoski’s third feature, Forbidden Fruit, examines this little known part of Finnish society. “What the world has to offer is deceitful,” an elder preaches from the pulpit, but for 18-year-old Maria (Amanda Pilke) the desire to know and experience leads her to move to Helsinki, where she’s eventually joined by her best friend, Raakel (Marjut Maristo), who’s been sent to watch over her.
Karukoski generally avoids simplifying the Laestadists and painting them as fundamentalists, and he doesn’t create an overt contrast with the modern secular society the two teenagers move through. The focus remains Maria and Raakel – sometimes they experiment and at others they’re nonplussed by the extremes of consumerism, and along the way they debate the merits of faith as a literal or a metaphoric power. Maria finds her older sister, Eeva (Malla Malmivaara), who has previously been “shunned” as an outcast, but the film is at its best when it stays close to the protagonists, catching the way their senses are renewed. At one point Raakel, trying to find Maria, wanders onto a university campus and finds herself in a vast room full of seats. When the lights go down and an image is projected on a screen she is both scared and enraptured at the realisation that she is in a cinema. Fascination and wonder slowly spread across her expressive face, and a tear runs down her cheek. Faith has a whole new meaning.