Joonas Berghäll & Mika Hotakainen | 2010 | 82 mins | Finland
Can you think of a single thing not to love about a documentary that's 100% naked men in saunas? I know, me neither. But get your mind out of the gutter. The men in Steam of Life aren't, in most cases, particularly sexy. Nor do they, I suspect, give a fuck about whether they look good for the camera. They're just regular guys, with droopy skin, beer bellies or concave chests, bad tattoos, and whatever other flaws you might imagine a random cross-section of the Finnish population to have. What makes the film spectacular is not the gawking at naked men part. It's the fact that these men, who come from a culture that privileges the strong, silent, tough-guy type, all open up in the sauna and share honest, frank stories about their lives.
Apparently, in Finalnd, if you can hot-box it, you can turn it into a sauna, and the saunas in the film are as diverse as trailers and phone booths, tents and underground mines. The sauna is a national passion in Finland that I can't think of a parallel or equivalent to here in Canada. We simply can't relate to how central this ritual is to the daily life of the average man, but Steam of Life sure gets us close to understanding the value of the ritual - and not just for your complexion.
Some of the stories are funny, and some are utterly heartbreaking. The men reminisce about their lives, their children, their lost loves and changing fortunes. It's an unbelievably intimate and frank view into their lives. Their willingness to let the filmmakers shoot them naked in the sauna is actually the least intimate part of it. When the emotions start pouring out and the tears start flowing with the sweat and steam, it's unbelievably touching, funny, sad, and uplifting all at once.
My own love for Finland burns with the fire of a thousand suns, but in this case the quality of the film speaks for itself, and it's not just my gross cultural bias that leads me to endorse it. The audience at the first Hot Docs screening gave the two young filmmakers the most raucous round of applause I've seen yet, stopping just short of an ovation. Truly a beautiful glimpse into the warm heart of an outwardly icy group of men.