FINLAND is a long way from Hollywood, but it's emerging as a major new presence on the world movie scene. The latest evidence is the strong showing made by Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurism"aki and his new picture, ``Ariel,'' at the Berlin Film Festival recently. No movie I saw there was received more enthusiastically, and no director appeared to make a bigger hit with festivalgoers - even though Mr. Kaurism"aki can't be said to have courted popularity, speaking with his audience in a manner at once shy and sardonic.
The triumph of ``Ariel'' at Berlin came soon after an ambitious Finnish film show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where not one but two Kaurism"akis were featured. In addition to works by Aki, the program also included films by his brother, Mika Kaurism"aki, who launched the program with an in-person appearance introducing his ``Helsinki Napoli - All Night Long,'' which plays Ameri-can gangster-movie conventions against a color-ful European background. True to the Kaurism"aki brothers' reputation, it belied its quick-and-inexpensive production schedule with handsome production values and lively performances.
What are Finnish movies like? From all the evidence, they seem to be as varied as the films of any land where directors with different sensibilities engage in friendly competition for the attention of audiences at home and - it is hoped - abroad. Recently released Finnish productions range from documentary and courtroom drama to at least one horror film. There's also a Kaurism"aki specialty: updatings of classic stories, such as ``Crime and Punishment'' and the whimsically titled ``Hamlet Goes Business.''
So far, ``Ariel'' is the biggest international hit of the Finnish film industry. Following its success in West Berlin, its Switzerland-based distributor reported a company record in foreign sales for the picture, which was bought for exhibition in countries from France and Great Britain to Japan, Australia, Israel, Greece, and Norway, among others - quite an accomplishment for a modestly budgeted picture that doesn't fit any familiar pigeonhole in terms of content or style.
The hero of ``Ariel'' is one Taisto Kasurinen, who leaves his native Lapland when the mine where he works is closed down. Seeking his fortune in Helsinki, he finds a girlfriend but has trouble landing a job, and hits real trouble when a minor incident runs him afoul of the authorities. The conclusion finds him fleeing Finland on a ship called Ariel, in a scene that recalls the ending of Marco Ferrari's Italian fable, ``Dillinger Is Dead.''
According to a program note, ``Ariel'' is ``dedicated to the memory of Finnish reality.'' In keeping with this idea, its content is as diverse as Finnish reality itself: The movie ``contains almost everything,'' said one review published in Finland, adding that the director's ``entire attention focuses on people ... and the basic denomination seeking happiness is a family, not a couple.''
The film mixes a number of genres, from road movie to romance to melodrama. It mixes its moods with equal abandon, mingling humor and violence as if they were natural partners. It makes clever use of tried-and-true cinematic devices - especially blackouts, which often have a humorous effect - and has beautifully crisp cinematography (by Timo Salminen) that conveys a quintessentially Finnish atmosphere. Also worth special notice is its music, which ranges from the American folk music of Leadbelly (singing a kind of unemployment blues) to strains of Tchaikovsky heard in a saloon, the socialist ``Internationale'' played on a broken-down music box, and a culminating chorus of ``Over the Rainbow'' crooned in Finnish.
For all its jauntiness of mood, ``Ariel'' has a no-nonsense subject at its core, as Kaurism"aki readily acknowledged in Berlin: the challenge of widespread unemployment, which he calls a serious problem in Finland today. ``Ariel'' treats that issue in a pungent manner, while also managing to tell a rip-roaring story and play divertingly with Hollywood-type story conventions. Versatility is clearly a Kaurism"aki trademark, being equally visible in a Maki Kaurism"aki film like ``Helsinki Napoli - All Night Long,'' a dark comedy featuring a taxi driver, his large family, various mobsters, a couple of peripatetic corpses, and large doses of Finnish and Italian ethnicity in a garish West Berlin setting.
A number of film-world observers expect the Kaurism"aki brothers to become one of cinema's hottest international properties in months to come, a prediction that's easy to believe since the brothers are uncommonly prolific. Aki alone has completed two movies since ``Ariel'' was released: one called ``Dirty Hands,'' which the director says he finished one day before arriving at the Berlin festival, and another with the tantalizing title ``Leningrad Cowboys Go American.'' The celebrated ``Ariel'' itself is the centerpiece of a trilogy that also includes ``Shadows in Paradise,'' a love story, and ``Match Factory Girl,'' coming later this year.