Another magical drama about a refugee in hiding with a carefully balanced comic tone, this was inevitably going to be compared to Le Havre, my favorite movie of a few years back, and fall slightly short. But it’s nice to have more of refugee Khaled’s story in this one, as opposed to near-mute Idrissa in Le Havre, and the acknowledgement of the racism and xenophobia within the country’s citizens fueling the policies that are making it so difficult for him to gain asylum in Finland.
Syrian Khaled has bounced through ten countries on his way to Finland and is desperate to locate his one surviving relative, his sister Miriam, and bring her to a safer place. His Iraqi friend Mazdak offers communications help to look for the girl while Khaled finds work with Wikström (Leningrad Cowboy Sakari Kuosmanen), who has left his wife for reasons unknown and purchased a dumpy restaurant. Wikström and Khaled are given too little shared screen time for us to watch them bond (alongside a cute dog and three bedraggled employees who came with the building), but Wikström proves to be big-hearted, protecting his newest employee from the elements and the authorities.
Kaurismäki won best director in Berlin (A Fantastic Woman, Félicité, On the Beach at Night Alone). My moviegoing companions were surprised and appalled that Finland would not offer Khaled asylum and try to have him deported, but now that I’ve seen Stranger in Paradise, nothing is surprising. Others were dismayed by all the screen time given to amateur performances of rockabilly songs, but I preferred those to the half hour of backstory showing how Wikström came to run a restaurant. I recognized Kati Outinen (the wife in Le Havre) in one scene, and restaurant doorman Ilkka Koivula (probably also from Le Havre), but that apparently was not Carel Struycken as a bartender.