So now and again I decide I am tired of standard Hollywood fare, and decide to watch a movie from another stable. I’ll follow a director (I’m a big fan of auteur theory), or a genre, and I’ma fan of coming-of-age films, but often I’ll check out a foreign film. I don’t mind subtitles. It’s a small price to pay to see something completely different on screen. I like movies that are almost tone poems, that lose you in their imagery, and last night I checked out Concrete Night (Betoniyö) from 2013.
Here’s the official blurb:
A fourteen-year-old boy in a stifling Helsinki slum takes some unwise life lessons from his soon-to-be-incarcerated older brother, in Finnish master Pirjo Honkasalo’s gorgeously stylized and emotionally devastating work about what we pass on to younger generations, and the ways we do it.
Finnish master Pirjo Honkasalo’s feverish, stylized Concrete Night, a glimpse at the imaginative life of a fourteen-year-old boy, is an aesthetic tour de force — an emotionally devastating work about what we pass on to younger generations, and the ways we do it.
The film is set during summer in a stifling Helsinki slum so eerily run down that a sticky sense of revulsion emanates from each location, from the industrial wastelands where young Simo (Johannes Brotherus) hangs out (his swimming hole is a bay beside a huge toxic-looking factory on the outskirts of town) to its various hothouse apartments. Peter Flinckenberg’s creepily precise black-and-white cinematography and a muted soundscape create a claustrophobic sense of dread — while stripping the atmosphere of any temporal context. The unmoored setting perfectly reflects Simo’s anxiety and confusion about the world around him.
The pivotal issue is the imminent departure of Simo’s older brother, Ikko (Jari Virman), the closest thing he has to a father, who’s being sent to jail for six months on a minor drug charge. With incarceration looming, Ikko takes the opportunity to leave behind a few noxious pearls of wisdom on the sexes (“You can always hit a woman. They enjoy it, but only hit a man if you have to.”) and humanity in general. We, Ikko explains, are the only species foolish enough to live in the future. Simo soaks it all up — and indeed, the film’s most painful and touching moments come when he tries to adopt his brother’s tough-guy poses.
A bizarrely seamless fusion of Coppola’s Rumble Fish, De Sica’s The Children Are Watching Us, and early David Lynch, Concrete Night is a cautionary tale about the attitudes and stances we cavalierly adopt without realizing the impact they have on those in our charge. Here, the children aren’t just watching us, they’re listening — and repeating.
The film didn’t do hugely well at the box office – 6.5/10 at IMDB and 67% on Rotten Tomatoes – but what blew me away was the cinematography, and the space given to the characters to breathe. Shot in black and white, it portrays Helsinki so bleakly that you desperately want to go there!
If you love good cinematography, this is the sort of film you can just relax with – don’t expect it to deliver action and drama (although there is some violence) – it’s more a meditation on slum life and growing up.
The lead, Johannes Brotherus, plays the role beautifully and this was my first real introduction to the Finnish language. Johannes (who plays violin) and his brothers are in a band in real life, called Brothers Brotherus, and check out one of their music videos: Uusi Ulottuvuus (“The New Dimension). So now I’m falling down the Finnish rabbithole, learning about the language and the country. I’ll be in Europe soon – this is somewhere I’ma dding to my AirBnB list!
The trailer for Betoniyö is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjivYyQ1MnM I think the film in its entirety has been posted on YouTube in case you cant obtain it any other way.
Here are some screencaps: