Mini-Review of Kaurismaki’s “Juha”

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While there is certainly an identifiable “Kaurismaki” movie, Aki Kaurismaki has demonstrated a surprising range in his films. “Juha” is a strange and lovely movie that contains numerous Kaurismaki touches but also veers into uncharted territory. It’s a quote-unquote silent movie with one of the most moving and evocative scores I’ve ever heard. Composed by Anssi Tikanmaki, the music not only enhances what is on the screen, it communicates a depth of feeling that dialog could only hint at. It cast a profound and lasting spell.

This is the 4th film adaptation of a famous Finnish novel, but the story is universal and timeless. It is the often-told tale of a woman seduced away from home, love, and comfort by the promise of excitement in the big city. The cast is pure Kaurismaki with Sakari Kuosmanen as steadfast Juha, Kati Outinen perfect as gullible Marja, and André Wilms as the slimy Shemeikka. (The decision to make “Juha” a silent film was supposedly because Wilms can’t speak Finnish. Hmmmm.)

While anyone can see trouble coming in Shemeikka’s Corvette ten kilometers away, the unfolding of the story happens in its own time and on Kaurismaki’s terms. The first third of the movie works brilliantly. The rest, not so much.

Yes, I get it that this played out as an opera with high drama and tragedy but even so it fell sadly flat. After pining away all winter, what suddenly lights a fire under Juha that he goes to the city with an ax? (an ax?) And how is it that he knows exactly where his woman is in the city? And why does everyone just stand around watching him tear around the place with that ax? That ending was incoherent and felt kind of slapped on which is such a shame after the promise and nuance that started things.

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