The Other Side of Hope. Malla Hukkanen © Sputnik Oy
Laughter is a rare gift at film festivals, which so often feel like relentless gloom and doom contests. In this year’s Berlinale Competition, at least thus far, good films have been in even shorter supply than funny ones. I’m really glad to report there’s been improvement on both fronts—after a truly lamentable first few days, laughs as well as quality started trickling into the festival’s main slate.
It was a pretty safe bet that Aki Kaurismäki’s new film, The Other Side of Hope, would be a stand-out. The high expectations were surpassed: this may very well be the great Finn’s best outing since his 1996 masterpiece Drifting Clouds. The second part of a planned trilogy addressing the current refugee crisis in Europe, The Other Side of Hope bears strong narrative similarities to its predecessor Le Havre (2011), though the catastrophic geopolitical developments of the intervening six years have dampened Kaurismäki’s already guarded optimism, if not his ability to unearth much-needed humor from adversity.
The story, this time set in Finland, again involves the arrival of a refugee and the efforts on the part of the community to hide him from the authorities and reunite him with a family member lost on the journey. After their house on the outskirts of Aleppo is blown up, killing their parents, uncle, aunt and little brother, Khaled and his sister Miriam flee the country, crossing border after border until they are separated when Khaled is arrested by the Hungarian police. He’s released soon after and eventually ends up in Finland hidden inside a boat’s coal shipment, which is where he’s introduced in the film’s opening, rising from the coal like a phoenix from the ashes.
As ever in Kaurismäki’s films, Finland is presented as a chronically depressed nation for whose inhabitants the greatest aspiration is fleeing to warmer, sunnier shores—Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen appears for a single uproarious scene to tell Wikström, the film’s other protagonist, how she’s dropping everything and moving to Mexico to dance the hula. When all the locals want to do is flee, it’s grimly ironic that Khaled and the many others in his situation should look to the country as a haven; an irony that is compounded into tragedy when Khaled’s request for asylum is rejected. At his hearing, the straight-faced official tells him there’s no security crisis in Aleppo and orders his deportation. To underline the bureaucracy’s lack of humanity, the film cuts to a TV news report about ongoing bombings of civilians in the Syrian city, the by-now depressingly familiar images showing an endless landscape of smoldering ruins.
Thankfully, vestiges of humanity still exist amongst the common people. Wikström, who owns a restaurant that serves some of the most revolting food in film history, takes the fugitive Khaled in, offering him a job and a place to sleep until Miriam can be located. In the meantime, Khaled assists the restaurant staff in their ludicrous attempts at attracting more patrons (change of menu: salt herring sushi with golf-ball-sized dollops of wasabi to mask the horrifying taste), converts a dog to Islam (the pooch preferred it to Buddhism), and tentatively starts making a home for himself in Kaurismäki’s anachronistically furnished, Technicolor-hued Finland. The proceedings are characteristically droll but the acute poignancy of the finale is unprecedented, leaving us with a straightforward yet urgent entreaty: as difficult and futile as hope may seem in the face of the present, it must be maintained at all costs.
Sally Potter’s riotous The Party, also in the Competition, offers a far more cynical take on the current state of things. In a weird coincidence, it’s essentially the British counterpart to Oren Moverman’s Competition entry The Dinner, as both use an allegorical and increasingly tempestuous gathering to expose the failings of their respective countries’ ruling classes. Beyond nationality, another fundamental difference between the two films is that Potter’s is really good.
The occasion here is a party amongst seven long-time friends to celebrate one of the characters’ election as Shadow Minister. Like Roman Polanski’s equally volcanic Carnage (2011), which also never leaves the confines of an apartment, The Party is a showcase for exceptional acting, with Patricia Clarkson, Kristin Scott Thomas and Bruno Ganz as first amongst equals in the outstanding cast. Potter keeps the tension high from the get-go, rapidly cycling through the characters spread across the various rooms and letting a continuous stream of lies and betrayals—ome fresh, some very old—bubble to the surface until all are unmasked and not a single bond is left undamaged.
Considering the film’s title and that the characters broadly belong on the left side of the political spectrum—most are academics and former social activists, though all have lost the fervor they once had for their convictions—it’s apparent that Potter’s excoriation is directed at the shitshow that is the current Labour Party, which for years has been crippled by infighting and a complete inability to adapt to changing times, destroying the trust of its constituency and allowing a catastrophe like Brexit to happen. In this regard, The Party can be considered a contemporary companion to Peter Greenaway’s irate censure of Thatcherism The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (it’s perhaps not a coincidence that they each climax with the viewer getting shot at). Both are lucid and razor-sharp films about characters behaving horribly to one another to everybody’s detriment, eliciting copious laughs along the way—though, ultimately, it’s laughter that gets stuck in your throat.