I have seen Steam of Life twice now, but it was only after going over my notes from both viewings that I realized just how frequently the dread specter of death noses into the proceedings. I'd like to think my critical oversight is attributable not to my analytical laziness but to this Finnish documentary's tender humanity, its vision of salutary amity. For despite all of its hovering around tales of woe, Steam of Life delivers one back to the world lighter, somewhat lifted, not at all skeeved by ineluctable annihilation. The film's final line, spoken by a man wrecked and wracked by grief, might as well be its tagline: "Knowing you are not alone is an incredible relief."
Composed of a dozen or so carefully staged tableaux starring an assortment of variously shaped and weather-beaten Finnish men who gather in saunas (evidently a national pastime) to commiserate and cry over lost love, dead wives, estranged children and myriad failures, Steam of Life allows its subjects the time and space to speak until the pain pours out with the sweat. It is difficult to resist the urge to avert one's eyes from the bottomless hurt that manifests in the men's testimonials. It is hard to watch the buff, preening soldier who crumples while talking about his dead mother. And then there is the man so overcome by grief that he cannot lift his chin from his chest while discussing his dead wife.
Most devastating is the gentleman who tells a stunned brother-in-steam about his dead child before delivering the aforementioned prayer against suffering in solitude. It is not the first sauna scene to get stuck in my head—I still have Viggo's nude wrestling match in Eastern Promises, Jason Patric's majestically icky steamroom monologue in Your Friends and Neighbors and Mastroianni's hallucinatory papal schvitz in 8 1/2 caught in the old noodle—but this penultimate scene of fraught catharsis, which is followed by an odd but perfect group singalong, tops them all.
Steam of Life is a small, quiet film, free of the flash that has, for better or worse, crept into so many nonfiction films. It is a work wholly devoted to conversation, and it takes time to vibe on the enervated rhythms of steamed speech; just keep the comforting words of one of the bathers in mind: "Sometimes it's good to talk."
89 SEE IT: Steam of Life screens at the NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium at 7 pm Friday and 9 pm Saturday, Aug. 26-27.