In Finland the social mechanism of the dry-heat sauna is both private and unifying. As a contender for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and Best Documentary Feature for Finland, the “Steam of Life” by Joonas Berghäll and Mika Hotakainen captures the raw moments seemingly gruff men can share in the intimacy of the sauna. This documentary presents with ease men bearing their souls and their bodies.
The men are old and young, fathers and sons, a husband and wife. Scores of still and silent landscapes juxtapose the exposed secrets of the varied groups of men. The hot rooms range from large wooden houses, urban rec centers, a converted trailer, and even a phone booth on the side of a dirt road.
From lost children, to family abuse, to the isolation of prison, the steam-room structures are a confessional and a sanctuary. The plot reads like a character study exposing each narrative spread to the beauty of the countryside that surrounds them. Men listen stoically to the heartfelt stories. Rarely is a name given, at times only a voice is narrating what feels like a fable. Buckets of water are thrown onto the hot stones togenerate cleansing steam, both literally and emotionally.
Peaceful moments initiate with the story of second love found late in life or the solace of family after years of neglect. One man speaks of taking his good friend, an orphan brought to his aid, into a steam room for the first time. The friend oddly enough turns out to be a bear. Even a trio of Santa Clauses donned in full red-garb share trials and triumphs. These moments of jest are rare and welcome in this heavy film.
One can’t help but wonder what emotion is lost in translation in the words all ready thick with meaning. The scenes do start to feel slow without a central character to adhere to. Each tale is none-the-less poignant. Although for some getting over the unashamed nudity may be a problem, the visual pairing of real men with jarring honesty is an obvious release from the brutality of daily life.
As one man says, “Sometimes it’s good to talk.”