The Prodigal Son | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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The Prodigal Son

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The Finnish cinema of today probably offers the most distinctive collective vision since Fassbinder and friends contributed theirs in 1970s Munich. In the films of the Kaurismaki brothers and their colleagues there's a streak of subversive humor lurking under the bleak, dissolute existence of the postindustrial working class. While this idiosyncratic, tragicomic take pays oblique homage to film noir and urban Americana by way of Melville and Bresson, its droll, fatalistic transcendentalism is refreshingly original. The Prodigal Son (1992), the second film by Kaurismaki associate Veikko Aaltonen, has the austere look of Bresson, but its perversely ironic plot is more akin to Bunuel. Esa (played with a beguiling stoicism by Hannu Kivioja) is an ex-con who can't find a straight job; instead he's paid to beat people up. He's quickly drawn into a vortex of depravity when one of his clients, a wealthy and fatherly psychiatrist (wickedly portrayed by Esko Salminen), demands exclusive service. Their sadomasochistic relationship is fueled by oedipal feelings and the struggle for control. It is intercut with an affair that develops between Esa and an actress, which promises to redeem him through decency and love. Eventually the tug-of-war between good and evil is played out to a horrific climax. The wholesome epilogue, seemingly hokey, actually underscores the sardonic existentialism that permeates the Finnish outlook. The screening will be preceded by two Leningrad Cowboys music videos by Aki Kaurismaki, the spiritual godfather of the Finnish movement. Boots, a cover of the famous Nancy Sinatra song, is a punky and puckish tribute to the band's unforgettable footgear. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, August 21, 8:00, 443-3737.

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