The Cuckoo

directed by Aleksandr Rogozhkin
(Sony, 2002)

A Russian, a Lapp and a Finn find themselves on a Finnish reindeer farm in the fall of '44. It sounds like the opening to a bad ethnic joke, but in reality it's the plot line of an ingenious little film, The Cuckoo (originally released as Kukushka).

Veikko (Ville Haapasalo) is a Finnish soldier who's decided he will fight no more, so his squad members strip him of his gear, put him in a Nazi uniform and chain him to a rock, where he becomes fair game for snipers and strafers of all ilks.

Ivan (Viktor Bychkov) is a Russian officer who does his best for godlessness and country, but it's not good enough for his fellow officers, one of whom becomes suspicious when he sees some of the apolitical poetry Ivan has been writing in his spare time.

And Anni, a.k.a. Cuckoo, is a Lapp war widow whose husband was conscripted out from under her four years earlier, leaving her to run the reindeer farm -- and just about everything else within eyeshot -- all by herself.

It takes some doing to bring all three of them together, but writer-director Aleksandr Rogozhkin manages it with a fair amount of credibility.

Veikko garners most of Rogozhkin's attention in the early going, as the director records in minute detail Veikko's attempts to extricate himself from the rock to which he's bound. It's a great study in process analysis -- be sure to take notes in case you're ever chained to a boulder -- and, if nothing else, it leaves you with great admiration for Veikko's resourcefulness.

Meanwhile, Ivan, or what's left of him, escapes when the jeep delivering him to his courtmartial is strafed by Nazi aircraft and his driver and fellow officer are killed. And Ivan would have gone with them if he hadn't been discovered by Anni, who takes him back to her farm and nurses him back to health -- a task complicated by the unexpected arrival of Veikko.

If this all sounds like very serious business, it is, at least until the three of them attempt to live under the same thatched roof. Then all of a sudden it's Three's Company done in three languages -- none of which makes any sense to anyone but the person speaking it.

At this point, Cuckoo becomes an extended, and often hilarious, exercise in miscommunication.

Ivan thinks Veikko is a fascist, Veikko thinks Ivan is an idiot and Anni is unable to get the word out to anyone but the audience that four years without a man is just about three-and-a-half years too many -- and she'd be more than willing to settle for some nonverbal communication, if only she could convince the men in her life that that's what she wants. Instead, they go about the farm trying to make themselves useful in the most useless of ways.

But Anni is no less resourceful than Veikko -- witness the combination of folk medicine and arctic voodoo she uses to save Veikko's life -- and she will have her way, despite her complaint about the ways of the outside world: "All men," she says, "smell of death and iron now."

So Cuckoo is many things: a sitcom in which none of the characters can comprehend the situation, or the comedy; a tale of three very small people caught up in a very large war (call it Casablanca North); and a stunning look at life on the Arctic plain, where the tundra meets the taiga in the last long rays of summer light.

Call it what you like, Cuckoo is that rare film that, for all its challenges and occasional flaws, lets you laugh yourself all the way to understanding.

You can get it, even if Anni, Veikko and Ivan never do.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 5 March 2005

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