Opening 20 Jan 2022
May 1 is a national holiday in Finland, not so much because of the country's socialist ideals as because it marks the beginning of spring. Finns take their drinking holidays seriously, and this one is no exception. It would be painful for bar owners and customers looking for companionship if such an important celebration were cancelled by something hateful and unforeseen, like a coronavirus pandemic. And so it goes...
This timely film begins with a few mournful shots of the abandoned center of Helsinki – the train station and pedestrian zones that are otherwise teeming with people. Yet the lights are still on in a cavernous, trendy-looking bar in an old industrial area. Bar owner Heikki (Pertti Sveholm) is about to concede defeat to the virus and close down forever. But Heikki's old acquaintance Risto (Kari Heiskanen) shows up at the door, and he's badly in need of someone to talk to. Risto is a regular guest and a doctor who has just lost another young patient to the virus. Though Heikki's "Corona" bar is not officially allowed to open for guests, Risto counts as a friend, so the two settle in for a glass. Now a stranger appears: it's Juhani (Timo Torikka). His daughter is in labor, and he begs to be allowed to charge his phone. Juhani is a genial-enough fellow who nonetheless seems to be harboring a secret. The two friends find him rather irritating: he won't go away. The trio manage to find common ground though, and soon they're sitting together over bottles of good red wine, discussing freedom, family, heroism, and the unforeseen paths of fate. It's going to be a long night.
Gracious Night is a melancholic, philosophical, talky film about emotional neediness in a time of isolation (if you're looking for action, go see Spider-Man). The three leads are brilliant, and though much of the dialogue was improvised, it is surprisingly fluid and heartfelt. Leading Finnish filmmaker Mika Kaurismäki is expert at teasing out psychological nuances from his characters. His Three Wise Men from 2008 featured the same three actors, also discussing life over drinks in a bar – on Christmas. Devotees of Finnish cinema might see a pattern here, of films in which taciturn Nordic males have heart-to-hearts in intimate situations. The wonderful documentary Steam of Life (2010) featured Finnish men cleansing themselves physically and mentally while baring their bodies and souls in saunas.
If you haven't seen Kaurismäki's lovely cross-cultural Master Cheng in Pohjanjoki from 2019, seek it out too: it won the audience award that year at the Nordic Film Days in Lübeck. (Brenda Benthien)