IN "ARIEL," a Finnish movie, life is drab, pointless and depressing. It's also very funny.
We're in Lapland. A coal mine has been shut down. A miner called Taisto (Turo Pajala) and a workmate sit despondently in a cafe. The friend bequeaths Taisto his Cadillac convertible and tells him to look for something better in Finland. Then he walks calmly into the men's room and shoots himself. Taisto runs over and looks at his dead friend. There's no shock on Taisto's face. He lights a cigarette. He drives his late friend's car out of the garage and sets out for Finland. Behind him, the garage collapses . . . .
It's just another day in the deadpan world of Aki Kaurismaki, a director who, with his brother Mika, almost comprises Finland's entire movie output. In "Ariel," made in 1988, Kaurismaki doesn't try to tickle your funny bone so much as goose your sense of irony. His characters don't emote or get hysterical. Why get so excited? They just undergo the recurrent ordeals of life with mute resignation.
Taisto will have more than his fair share of ordeals. He'll get slugged and robbed, stay in a flophouse and get thrown in jail. But just as arbitrarily, romantic bells will ring when a meter maid (Susanna Haavisto) falls head over heels for him, doffs her cap and the ticket she was writing him, and leaps into the car.
"Will you disappear in the morning?" she asks later, as they lie in bed.
"No," he says flatly. "We'll be together forever."
It's not important what happens to them next. It's a familiar chain of events drawn from Warner Bros. gangster flicks and love-on-the-run movies. What makes "Ariel" so enjoyable is Kaurismaki's hypnotically comic perspective, highlighted by his understated, ludicrous human tableaux. When Taisto sets out in the convertible, for example, he can't figure out how to put up the top. He's obliged to tie a scarf around his head, peasant-woman style. He drives through the cold, a sad ballad blaring from a tape recorder on the back seat, his stubbled face registering little except driving concentration.
Later, when he takes his girlfriend and her little son for a picnic, they sit on a desolate strip of rocky bank which is so narrow, Taisto is obliged to let his boots dangle into the water.
That convertible top problem by the way, turns out to be a comic setup. Keep an eye out for a punchline late in the movie. And keep an ear open for another special treat: "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" sung in Finnish. In Kaurismaki's peculiar world, it fits perfectly.
"Ariel" is preceeded by a Kaurismaki short called "Rock'y," in which a bulky Russian boxer called Igor, with enormous, fake eyebrows, is transported by dog sled to a boxing ring. There he meets an incredibly skinny American boxer and proceeds to pound the hell out of him, as well as the referee and everyone else near the ring. If nothing else, this surely illustrates Woody Allen's dictum about judo: The bigger your opponent, the bigger the beating he's going to give you.
ARIEL (Unrated) -- Biograph. In Finnish with subtitles.