Every morning at the break of dawn, Nikander (Matti Pellonpää) and his co-worker (Esko Nikkari) conduct their silent ritual by making their way through a maze of trucks parked in the depot of a waste management company, picking up their daily itinerary, settling into their assigned vehicle, driving to their designated industrial areas to collect the accumulated trash from the cumbersome dumpsters, and taking an occasional break from work by stopping at a convenient diner before resuming their collection route. Eager to celebrate the end of the work week with a bottle of liquor smuggled into the locker room, Nikander’s colleague attempts to entice him with a business proposition that he has been planning for years: to launch a start-up garbage disposal service with Nikander serving as his foreman. It is an attractive offer that seems well suited to Nikander’s own curious efforts at self-enrichment as he alternately spends his evenings studying English language comprehension through pre-recorded instructional lessons and playing bingo at a local gaming parlor. Preying on Nikander’s conscience with a sobering reflection on his increasingly failing health as well as his unfulfilled promises to his devoted wife for an exotic vacation and a life of luxury – along with a humble (and humorous) wish to die behind a desk instead of behind the wheel of a garbage truck – his colleague convinces him to accept the proposal, and conveys his consent by indicating that he should take a course in order to help him prepare for his new professional role. However, tragedy strikes before his colleague’s plans can be set to motion, and Nikander soon finds himself seemingly trapped in the same rut of his dead-end job until he again meets a genial and attentive cashier named Ilona (Kati Outinen) taking a smoking break – a supermarket samaritan who had once dressed his wounded arm after a car repair injury – and immediately falls for her.
The first film in what would evolve into the Proletariat Trilogy (along with Ariel and The Match Factory Girl), Shadows in Paradise is a muted, understatedly atmospheric, sublimely realized, and darkly comic romantic fable. Using alternating daytime and nighttime shots of exterior spaces and dimly lit interiors that obscure temporal reference, Aki Kaurismäki captures the inherent monotony – and often unproductive – perpetual routines that symptomatically define the dead-end, inescapable plight and marginalization of the working class: impersonal public spaces (night class study rooms, bars, restaurants, hotels, and bingo halls) that serve as an extension to the characters’ alienated existence; recurring episodes of unrealized and aborted plans (the colleague’s business proposal, Ilona’s impulsive act of revenge, Nikander’s truncated courtship) that illustrate a pattern of disappointment and failed attempts at a better life; Ilona’s history of job insecurity that mirrors the instability of her relationship with Nikander. Kaurismäki further implements visual incongruity through idiosyncratic, but subtly effective (and thematically contradictory) camerawork in order to reflect the untenability of personal fulfillment: initially, in the unexpectedly rapid zoom-out, long shot of Nikander and Ilona’s kiss, then subsequently in Nikander’s extreme close-up after Ilona leaves the apartment. It is this underlying elusiveness of happiness that wryly punctuates the seemingly idyllic parting image of the film: a glimpse of reconciliation and a new beginning amid the obscuring sight of a fog-laden horizon under ominously dark clouds, drifting sluggishly, but inalterably into the strangely familiar unknown.
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