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Hopes and Fears in Helsinki: Pirjo Honkasalo’s ‘Concrete Night’

Concrete Night, (Betoniyö), directed by Pirjo Honkasalo, initially masks itself with magical realism and a starry, starry dream sequence. Much like Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), Concrete Night features heavy monochromatic contrasts and feelings of urban isolation. There are buildings, buildings and more buildings; distressed characters looking for purpose and meaning. The elliptical subjects live practical lives, but in the concrete jungle, the lack of excitement can lead to questionable decision making. And it’s that sense of danger that drives the film’s shadowy narrative, providing a disturbing look at Helsinki’s lower depths.

In 24 hours, 14-year-old Simo (Johannes Brotherus) will separate from his older brother Ilkka (Jari Virman), who must begin a 277-day sentence for an unknown crime. Much like in Tony Kaye’s 1998 film American History X, there’s a clear power dynamic and a sense of brotherly love. In both films, following the leader can be quite dangerous. “Quit the fucking prancing,” Illka barks at the giggly Simo. He needs to toughen this kid up. Simo often drifts away in thought, and Illka  — always projecting a hardened image — watches closely. He sees the future and has little time to influence his impressionable brother.

As Illka, Virman channels James Dean’s angst and Marlon Brando’s methodical pacing. For a guy that’s about to get sent away, Ilkka remains incredibly composed, puffing away on cigarettes and essentially performing for Simo. His bravado makes sense in the concrete jungle, though. He’s shielding Simo from excessive guilt and behavior that could make him appear weak. Ilka sees the larger picture, even if he speaks of immediate doom. Simo can sink or swim, follow or lead. He’s lost in aquatic dreams, lost in feelings that he doesn’t quite understand.

Time stays relatively fixed in Concrete Night, much like Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse. The brothers speak of a conceptual future, but they’re trapped within the present. Ilkka waxes poetic about hard times and makes fatalistic statements (“If you’re free of hope, you’re free of everything”). Perhaps he’s merely preparing Simo for a rough stretch while he’s gone. In this setting, though, 277 days might as well be 27 years. Anthing can happen. The monochromatic visuals emphasize the bleak setting and skeptical perspectives while raising questions about time, identity and regret. When Honkasalo’s characters dream, they don’t see an explosion of colors. They see black and white.

A pivotal moment involves a mysterious neighbor, a camera and a misunderstanding. The sequence touches on universal concepts — neighborly squabbles, art and effective communication — but director Hankasalo creates such a claustrophobic setting with Concrete Night that it feels like nothing else matters beyond the present. Simo allows himself to be photographed like a Caravaggian figure, but he doesn’t want to be spoken to like one. The cinematography pays special attention to physical gestures and subsequent reactions.

Manipulation lives at the core of Concrete Night. Simo can’t escape the familial web; he can’t identify his own reality. Even a drunk’s piss takes on a metaphysical form. Like Simo and Ilka, their mother (Anneli Karppinen as Mother) carries herself with a specific (egocentric) energy, making her youngest son even more confused. She’s perhaps the key to Hankasalo’s film. Maybe Mother feels unloved, or maybe she’s just unloving. But when Ilka departs for good, she’ll unquestionably be in charge; a model for the conflicted Simo, a boy who follows the leader with unconditional love, even if the leaders value fear over hope.

Now streaming on MUBU USA, Concrete Night expressively analyzes identity complexes, repressed shame and the horror of feeling that nobody really cares. The harsh dialogue may not connect, but the visuals most certainly will.

Q.V. Hough (@qvhough) is a freelance writer and the Founding Editor of Vague Visages. In 2004, he graduated from Concordia College (Moorhead, MN) with bachelor degrees in Communication-Mass Media and History. From 2006 to 2012, Quinn lived in Hollywood, California and now resides in Fargo, North Dakota.

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