Can whimsy and social urgency mix? As a matter of principle, I see no reason why a topical issue can’t be heavily aestheticized—if done properly, it’s both more vivid and more honest than the pretension of “realism.” But doing so takes the greatest of care. That’s the thread walked by Aki Kaurismäki’s new comedy The Other Side of Hope, in which a Syrian refugee named Khaled, having fled the violence in Aleppo and been driven across eastern Europe, lands unceremoniously in Finland. Or rather, in Kaurismäki’s version of Finland: a place of chain-smoking cool, retro guitar licks, and rooms so color-coded that just about every scene includes a static composition that could be hung comfortably on a wall. (Kaurismäki’s deadpan sensibility makes him Finland’s Jim Jarmusch, though it may be more proper to say that Jarmusch is America’s Kaurismäki). Khaled, as played by Sherwan Haji, is something of a Buster Keaton figure: generally silent, physically small, expressively inexpressive, unfailingly innocent and honest, and ever-persevering through all the indignities, indifference, and injury that life—in this case, life as a refugee—throws his way. And fate has him set on a course to collide with a wannabe restauranteur whose morals are shady at best. The film often plays by screwball logic; that is, characters will make a decision because that’s what’s required for comedy—and the way this mingles with the migrant crisis, including glimpses of real violence on the news, can make The Other Side of Hope a bit too arch or nebulous or listlessly trapped between tones. But as its plot threads come together and the film closes, it has become a truly uplifting comedy in the classical sense of the term, borne from the idea that people can go on, that locals aren’t necessarily more law-abiding than immigrants, and that maybe the system will get its shit together. The coda earns the word “hope”. Bless it.
The Other Side of Hope is appearing and disappearing at arthouses across the country. If you have a chance, take it.