Khaled, fleeing civil war in Syria, has wound up in Helsinki, where he lives in a dormitory with other refugees. One, Mazdak, who is from Iraq, coaches Khaled (Sherwan Haji) before his asylum hearing. Mazdak (Simon Hussein Al-Bazoon) tells his friend to be cheerful, since the Finns will deport “melancholics.”
That’s a deep, subtle joke, one of many in “The Other Side of Hope,” the Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki’s humane and gravely funny new film. The national temperament, at least as Mr. Kaurismaki sketches it, is decidedly saturnine. Smiles are as rare as trips to the gym or the plastic surgeon. Finland is a country of weary, stoical sad sacks, with sagging faces, who sit behind desks, eat bland food and play in rockabilly bands. Maybe Mazdak is right, and the government hopes that admitting upbeat migrants will provide a needed infusion of joy.
But Mr. Kaurismaki, a fixture of world cinema, returning to form after a period of relative inactivity — “Other Side” is his first feature since 2011, and only his fourth in this century — is a profoundly patriotic filmmaker. He is less a satirical observer of his nation’s foibles than an excavator of its mopey, mordant, steadfast conscience. Helsinki, as Khaled experiences it, has its dangers. He is menaced by racist skinheads and thwarted by literal-minded bureaucrats. Yet he also encounters the unsentimental, occasionally grudging kindness of ordinary Finns, and when he tells Mazdak that he has fallen in love with his new home, you can understand why.
Khaled’s fortunes are entwined with those of Wikstrom, played by Sakari Kuosmanen, a familiar face in the Kaurismaki cosmos. A grumpy businessman whose apparent midlife crisis coincides with…