Review: A Finnish Word with No English Translation, Sisu Defines Itself in Grit, Action and Determination

Finnish-born writer/director Jalmari Helander (Rare Exports, Big Game) has done something very few filmmakers have or would have the guts to even try: make an entire film that is meant to define a word that has no direct English translation. As is explained in the opening title card, “sisu” is a uniquely Finnish concept that has a mystical, bordering on magical, meaning that describes a level of will power, determination, white-knuckled courage, perseverance, and rational behavior in the face of extreme adversity. 

With Sisu (the film), Helander has given this word and its meaning a human face in a solitary prospector named Aatami Korpi (regular collaborator Jorma Tommila, who also happens to be the filmmaker’s brother-in-law), who lives on the outskirts of civilization, panning for gold in the final days of World War II. German troops are pulling out of the area, but they are killing and burning everything on their way back to the the fatherland, including every village and civilian they meet along the way. They want no witnesses to their atrocities, and for good reason. It’s a great misfortune that just as Aatami discovers a massive gold deposit and loads up his donkey to take it to the nearest town, he runs into German soldiers, led by SS Obersturmführer Bruno Helldorf (Aksel Hennie), who lets the old man pass, mostly because he knows that a few miles later on his journey, the prospector will run into fellow Nazis that will not be so dismissive of him.

What we discover shortly about Aatami is that he used to be a legendary commando who went by the nickname The Immortal, not because he couldn’t die but because he simply refused to. Every time someone tries to kill him, Aatami hits back twice as hard with unimaginable fury, fueled by a very specific and traumatic reason to hate Nazis (aside from the usual ones). Before long, it becomes clear that he’s a one-man killing machine who can take a pounding even more severely than he dishes out, on the quest to retrieve his gold and save the lives of a group of Finnish women being held captive by the Nazis in one of their trucks for unspeakable purposes.

Despite this being a specifically Finnish story (the film marks the first time Helander has shot in Finland for Finland in one of his movies), the film is primarily in English, which is a bit strange, but one gets used to it. The level of violence and brutality is off the charts, but since most of it is perpetrated by Aatami, it’s acceptable. Even more extraordinary and wonderful is that, rather than simply free the women being held captive (led by Mimosa Willamo’s Aimo), he effectively deputizes and arms them to deliver a very special brand of justice upon the Nazis. 

The stylish way in which the filmmaker shoots Sisu emphasizes the dirt, filth, and generally unpleasant conditions in Finland at the time and illustrates how this antihero uses the landscape against his enemies. It’s savage and spectacular all at once, and despite being somewhere in his mid-60s, Tommila is a powerhouse, delivering and receiving every manner of blow, wound, and other physical abuses. Pain and suffering somehow fuels him, and we are in awe of his brand of sisu, which seems to have set the tone for the nation at one point. The fight sequences often feature an other-worldly quality, while the mud makes you feel firmly planted on earth. Sisu has the goods and a few of the bads.

The film is now in theaters.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support! 

Picture of the author
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.