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SIFF: Steam of Life - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
SIFF: Steam of Life
Directing: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B-

This is something you certainly don't see every day -- a least not in the United States, where the only saunas filled with men being in any way intimate with each other are hyper-sexualized. If Steam of Life is any indication, the rather common saunas of Finland couldn't be any further from sexual, and yet the men inhabiting them are emotionally intimate in a way American men pretty much never are. To say this isn't Kansas would be a vast understatement.

Co-directors Joonas Berghäll and Mika Hotakainen put together a profile of Finnish men (to whom the film is dedicated) that moves from heartbreaking to amusing and back to heartbreaking again. Really, the film is a succession of men bearing their souls, punctuated by beautiful shots of Finnish scenery and some of the more novel ways men create their saunas. One shot shows the bare backs and upper backsides through the windows of a camper trailer. Another shows a man walking out of the back of a tractor trailer in nothing but a towel. Yet another man converts a secluded phone booth into a sauna.

This movie has a lot of nudity. I've seen porn with less bared flesh. Except here the flesh is mostly old and flabby, with a few exceptions. Most of these guys are just regular, everyday men ranging from middle aged to elderly, sitting in a room together buck naked. Americans are used to thinking of saunas as places where you've at least got a towel wrapped around you. Here the only time a towel is used is when the men exit the sauna to cool off. If anything truly cuts to the difference between American and European attitudes toward nudity, it's the sequence with a man bathing his three young sons, all of them nude. Seeing this done by people in a different culture is somehow different; if this were an American man and his three children, surely American audiences would be squirming a bit in their seats.

It's certainly an interesting look at the nature of masculinity, and non-sexual intimacy between men. Every man shown here is clearly very comfortable with pervasive nudity. The film seems to suggest that the very act of being so physically exposed is what encourages the men to pour their hearts out to each other. One wonders how much footage the directors recorded in saunas all over the country, and the process they went through to edit down to these men talking about their tragic circumstances of various sorts, from custody battles with their children to dealing with deaths in their families to more general woman troubles. It gets to a point of bordering on tiresome. I'm all for men being comfortable with crying, but how many naked men do we have to watch doing it?

At least half the number shown here would have resulted in the same effect. It seems doubtful that this kind of unchecked emotion is the standard at any given Finnish sauna rather than, say, men just sitting together in companionable silence. Of course that wouldn't make as interesting a documentary.

One also wonders about the women of Finland. The opening shot is of a couple, presumably husband and wife. The man washes the woman's back and observes that he has been doing so for decades. They have an easy physical rapport with each other, though they certainly touch each other in a way the men who follow never do. But no woman is seen again.

So some of Steam of Life is a bit of a mystery. But a good chunk of it is oddly compelling, especially at the very end, where it comes to a hauntingly edited chorus of each featured subject, now fully clothed, singing a song widely known to Finns but unknown to practically everyone else. The unfamiliarity only adds to the effect, and offers a sense of very specific cultural identity. And that, more than anything, is what this movie showcases.

Men bare themselves and their souls in Finnish saunas in 'Steam of Life'.

Overall: B
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