Set in Helsinki’s murky urban suburbia is Concrete Night, directed by Pirjo Honkasalo. Based on a novel by Pirkko Saisio, and with a screenplay by both Saisio and Honkasalo, the film follows a young teenage boy on the last day before his older brother is sent to jail, and the events that have a formative impact on his burgeoning identity. Shot in black and white, the cinematography imbues the story with an austere, fragile beauty, one that seems to augur the loss of childhood innocence. Additionally, Honkasalo’s direction appears to render the plot’s events alternately, sometimes even simultaneously, nondescript and foreboding in their significance, and this ambiguity generates a cumulative impact once the whole picture is revealed.
Simo (Johannes Brotherus) is a fourteen-year-old boy living in an apartment with his tough older brother Ilkka (Jari Virman) and their burdened, distant mother (Anneli Karppinen). Spending time with his brother before his impending incarceration, it is evident that Simo is highly impressionable and immature, almost a blank canvass, taking in Ilkka’s musings and advice without a critical filter, and imitating his behaviour by drinking and smoking. However, as the night progresses the two become separated, culminating in a sudden act of violence that will irrevocably change both their lives.
The cinematography is arrestingly beautiful. The starkness of the tones infuses urban Helsinki with a monotony that is both confronting and alluring. The plot is not particularly dramatic; there are a few tense moments, but to most scenes there is an almost unassuming quality as they unfold. However, simmering beneath these exchanges and events are moments of potential significance that work incrementally to build momentum towards the film’s unexpected, shocking climax. Brotherus, in the film’s central role, at times comes across a little forced, but he is strongest in moments of silence and stillness. Honkasalo often employs close-ups, capturing Brotherus looking at his reflection in a bathroom mirror, and his stare is both blank and inquiring. Every time he rubs the fog from the mirror, the shadows seem to reveal subtle new layers being added to himself. Simo may view the world in black and white, but as the film progresses the grey starts to creep in.
Concrete Night’s story of two brothers on the cusp of entering two different phases of their lives is patient and reflective. It may not have the most engaging plot, but it is a slow, steady build that is pervaded with a harsh, fleeting beauty.
Concrete Night screened at the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival.