Steam of Life --Film Review

Finnish men bare their bodies and souls in this slight but engaging documentary

Finland’s submission for this year’s foreign-language Oscar race is not a dramatic film but a documentary made by directors Joonas Berghall and Mika Hotakainen. "Steam of Life" explores the central role that saunas play in Finnish culture. The directors might have invented fictional stories set in a steambath, but they felt it would be more immediate to find a variety of Finnish men who were willing to share some of their most intimate memories. The results are affecting, though probably not quite compelling enough to insure either a nomination or an American release for this likable film.

One mildly titillating aspect of the movie is that most of the men, young and old, are completely naked while they tell their stories. In keeping with their lack of physical inhibitions, their confessions seem remarkably natural and unforced. The directors spent three years traveling around Finland to find men who would be willing to reveal themselves without any self-consciousness. 

For example, one man tells about his stepfather beating him as a child, while a couple of others talk about the pain of losing custody of their children after a divorce. One of the most heart-rending interludes is the story of a man who talks about the death of one of his twin sons and the envy he feels whenever he sees another pair of twins. Some of the vignettes are more comic. One man talks warmly about his close relationship with a constant companion whom he adopted as an orphan; we assume he is talking about a child until a brown bear looms into the frame.

In addition to the autobiographical insights, Steam gives an impressive picture of all parts of Finland, from bustling urban centers to the remote, wintry wilderness. Another amusing revelation is the variety of places where Finnish men build saunas. Some, of course are, at health clubs in Helsinki, while other saunas are more makeshift constructs in a trailer, a mine and even a phone booth. During all of these scenes, the handsome cinematography by Heikki Farm and Jani Kumpulainen is a striking asset. The subtle, melancholy music by Jonas Bohlin underscores the sense of regret that infuses many of the reminiscences. Running just 82 minutes, the film is smart not to wear out its welcome. Still, the truth is that even at this length, it comes to seem slightly repetitive, which prevents it from achieving maximum emotional impact.

Production: Oktober Films
Director-screenwriters: Joonas Berghall, Mika Hotakainen
Producer: Joonas Berghall
Directors of photography: Heikki Farm, Jani Kumpulainen
Music: Jonas Bohlin
Editor: Timo Peltola
Sales: Films Transit International
No rating, 82 minutes