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The Cuckoo

Lost in translation

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Alexander Rogozhkin's The Cuckoo is like an affair with a lover you don't see coming: unattractive at first, then slowly more charming and seductive, and finally, so dazzling and intense that you can't believe you didn't recognize it from the start. It's the Tower of Babel meets Grand Illusion, and so lovely and exhilarating by the time it's over that you won't want to leave the theater right away.

Set in Finnish Lapland, in September 1944, The Cuckoo introduces us to its central trio with three slightly separate narrative lines that quickly come together.

Veiko (Ville Haapasalo) is a beefy young Finn forced to leave his idyllic and stimulating university life to fight for his country in its alliance with Germany. He's a self-proclaimed poet and musician, fond of quoting the masters (Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway), thus his Army mates believe he's unpatriotic. So they dress him in a German uniform -- knowing the Russians will shoot him on sight -- and leave him shackled to a spike that they drive deep into a boulder on a rocky hillside.

Meanwhile, a Russian captain, Ivan (Viktor Bychkov), is on his way to an inevitable firing squad (or worse) for engaging in anti-Soviet correspondence. When two Russian fighter planes accidentally kill his captors, he's left for dead in the virtually uninhabited (and uninhabitable) Finnish countryside.

But someone does live there. She's Anni (Anni-Kristiina Juuso), a Lapp whose husband left four years ago to fight for Finland, and who tenaciously maintains her rugged subsistence life, raising reindeer for milk and fur, and trapping fish to make watery chowder each night in a kettle over an open flame in her log hovel.

While foraging one afternoon for supplies, Anni comes across the dead Russians and begins to bury them. But when Ivan weakly coughs up the sand she throws over his face, she drags him to her home and nurses him back to consciousness. This all happens while the surprisingly wily Veiko frees himself from his leg irons. Soon he comes upon Anni's home, and she shelters him as well.

These three odd roommates have no lingua franca. And yet, each speaks on and on in his or her own tongue, getting a few ideas across with a gesture or a glance, but mostly misunderstanding everything that the others say. The Russian, naturally, is equal parts tart and melancholy, the Finn prone to reflection on the folly of war, and the rustic Lapp inured in the customs and superstitions of her culture, which believes (for example) that bathing only leads to illness (her husband did it once and got sick for the first time in his life).

The Cuckoo courteously comes to us with subtitles. But wouldn't it be thrilling to see this movie with only one of its languages translated, and thus to experience things from the point of view of a single character? These people keep talking to one another partly in the arrogant belief that they're getting through, and partly because people need to talk, even if they don't listen to each other or care what anyone else has to say.

Rogozhkin treats his three cultures evenhandedly, although he's clearly most respectful of the Lapp, who simply doesn't understand why her putatively more civilized houseguests insist on making war. So eventually this lonely gal makes love to each man, beginning with the handsome young Finn. Juuso is a beautifully subtle and expressive actress, and Anni's coy seduction of Veiko is a funny, tender, virtuoso sequence: It begins in Veiko's makeshift sauna and ends with Ivan pacing outside Anni's hut as it reverberates with her incessant ecstasy. (She warned Veiko that she was a screamer. He, of course, didn't understand.)

Just as all things come to an end, so must war (at least, any given war). The Finnish withdrawal from World War II allows Rogozhkin to set up his extraordinary denouement, a walk with love and death led by the mystical Anni, who worries that she doesn't possess her grandmother's power to turn herself into a dog whose howl can bring a dying man back to the world of the living. The Angel of Death in Rogozhkin's afterlife is a slender towhead with shimmering hair and milky skin, and the man whom this child tries to escort to the other side does not go quietly into the barest and coldest of Finnish nights.

If Rogozhkin doesn't finally offer a lot to cogitate -- his one-world pacifism is familiar, though no less valuable -- then at least he gives you a good ride as you learn it once again. The Finnish landscape in The Cuckoo is at once barren and bucolic, and the glimpse we get of Lapland life is certainly rare. (To add protein to the Russian's warm milk, Anni apologizes to her reindeer, then borrows some of its blood.) "The world's not perfect, but life's no worse for that," the ingenuous Veiko opines. In reply, Ivan gives him another sardonic Russian smile.

And Anni? In the end, her point of view treats us to a blossoming panorama of her world, surrounded still by the two men in her life, to whom she tells a tale of unity and peace -- another wry parable in Rogozhkin's ponderous, philosophic, metaphoric, crazy world. In Russian, Finnish and Sami (Lapp), with subtitles.


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