While North American spas and gyms frequently have saunas nestled within them, they are by no means as intrinsic in our everyday life as they are in Finland. North Americans will pop into a sauna, bodies draped in towels so as to conceal their naked bits from the eyes of others—their neighbours' eyes glued to the floor out of fear of being called out for gawking—yet in Finland, saunas are a place of respite that are frequently shared in small social groups, completely naked and liberating.
On the surface, Steam of Life appears to be a film about naked men sitting in steamy saunas shooting the breeze with one another. Yet co-directors Joonas Berghäll & Mika Hotakainen transcend the simple premise by profiling the men at their most vulnerable as they bear their souls, sharing tales of their life which are often quite heartbreaking. The dozen or so montages feature an assortment of Finnish men crying over lost loves, ex-wives, estranged children and other failures in their lives.
While the film is punctuated by beautiful shots of the Finnish landscape and the occasional display of some of the more creative ways saunas can be constructed, the crux of Steam is with the exploration of masculinity and non-sexual intimacy between men. The tales that are told in the buff suggest that the act of being physically exposed is what encourages them to bare their souls to each other—something culturally specific to Finnish men, given that they are traditionally not so emotionally expressive and open.
What makes Steam of Life such an incredible viewing experience is the manner in which Berghäll and Hotakainen treat their subjects. With zero prompting from the directors the men are left to their own devices, often with long uncomfortable silences as they search for the right words to express their feelings. By the end of the film, it is difficult not to feel as though you've been sitting with them in the sauna experiencing both the physical and emotional nakedness.
Steam of Life screens on Tuesday, November 20th at 6pm at the Royal. (Oktober)