By John Anderson | Thompson on Hollywood September 12, 2013 at 12:05PM
Included in the Toronto Film Festival’s “Masters” selection -- and for very good reason -- “Concrete Night” marks the return of the Finnish filmmaker Pirjo Honkasalo (“The Three Rooms of Melancholia”) to the realm of fiction for the first time since 1998, with a story that explores the poverty of the soul; the poverty of the pocketbook; life, death, Helsinki and the cosmos.
Based on a novel by Honkasalo compatriot Pirkko Saisio, “Concrete Night’ is a mood piece and a poem, a coming-of-age story and a parable about how one generation warps the next. It’s also, not coincidentally, one of the most gorgeous things to appear at TIFF.
Shooting in widescreen black-and-white (a distinctly Finnish gesture), DP Peter Flickenburger’s camera creates a look that suggests B&W social realist films of a bygone era, perhaps one of the great ‘50s films of Elia Kazan, or something shot by Haskell Wexler (like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”), or Otello Martelli (“Stromboli”). For any student of world cinema, the look of “Concrete Night” pulls the trigger on an explosion of visual memories and subconscious references, most of them linked to films of social importance, progressive thought, neo-realism and film as an art of visual nuance.
The story itself is about the troubled coming of age of a 14-year-old boy named Simo (Johannes Brotherus), who lives in squalor with his brother, who will soon be going off to jail. Simo’s problems may seem smalltime, but the look and frame of the film makes them epic.
“You have to choose a face,” the voiceover says, and as Simo stares into a mirror, he’s trying to figure out who’s staring back. Such moments of duality are rampant in “Concrete Night.” Honkasalo exploits every reflective surface she can find, suggesting alternate identities and possibilities, juxtaposing the what-ifs of a parallel existence, where Simo might have been born and better educated and made less morally porous, and where the influences on him might not have been so poisonous.
The dust, spores, feathers and bits of airborne effluvia that fly around in the air, and which puzzle Simo at the outset of the movie (and which recur throughout) seem to suggest the loose particles of his life. Or maybe pixie dust. You can choose a face, you can choose to see things this way or that; you can choose your life. But it requires strength and a moral barometer. Whether Simo has those qualities is a question that creates the not-inconsiderable tension of “Concrete Night,” as well as its considerable echoes.