Iím not one of those elitist movie people who think that foreign films are
by default superior to American ones. A movie is what it is,
no matter what language it uses to tell its story. Despite
all the utter shit that Hollywood puts out every year, American
filmmakers still manage to produce fresh, brilliant movies
to offset it.
That said, allow me to break my own rule for a minute here.
Every once in a while, a foreign film comes along that is
great precisely because itís so unlike anything American movies
are. Hollywoodís golden rule is narrative economy; donít waste
time, and always keep the audience engaged. Aleksandr Rogozhkinís
World War II drama The Cuckoo revels in time-wasting.
It is unhurried, uncomplicated, and completely unconcerned
with how it comes off. It has one thing in mind, and it spends
its running time stretching that idea out over the thinnest
of plot canvasses. The end result is a film that is challenging
in its very simplicity and unfailingly valuable, not as a
story necessarily, but more as one of those experiences that
doesnít let its effect be known until after itís over. I still
canít shake it, and if you asked me why, I wouldnít be able
to answer for sure.
The movie opens with Veiko (Haapasalo), a Finnish
sniper, who, after being accused of pacifism, is chained to
a rock in a Lapland forest by his fellow soldiers and left
to die an exiled death. To ensure his death, they dress him
in a German uniform, knowing that the Russian soldiers in
the surrounding area have been given orders to shoot Germans
on sight without accepting surrender. For roughly the next
half-hour, the film stays with Veiko as he MacGuyvers his
way out of his situation, breaking away from him only a few
times to introduce the other characters in the story. The
process he uses to escape is simple but tedious, yet the camera
stays on him, turning the tools and methods he uses into a
kind of admiringly protracted version of Boy Scout cunning.
When he finally breaks free of the rock, the movie doesnít
present it as some kind of heroic triumph over adversity.
Veiko simply shouts some catcalls at the passing Russian planes
and gets on with his day.
In the meantime, weíve met Anni (Juuso), a Lapp reindeer
farmer and widow who lives off the land, and Ivan (Bychkov),
a Russian soldier arrested for anti-Soviet correspondence.
As Ivan is transported by his captors, they are attacked by
falling mortars, and Ivan is the only survivor. Anni comes
across Ivan and takes him to her hut to nurse him back to
health. Soon, Veiko arrives on the scene, looking for tools
to remove the shackle still attached to his ankle. Anni, who
hasnít been with a man in the four years since her husband
was drafted and never returned, decides to let the two men
stay with her for awhile, hoping for a bit more than just
roommates. The three all speak different languages, and the
comedy of misunderstanding that follows is played out subtly
and elegantly. The Cuckoo doesnít use this as an excuse
for hijinks, but instead presents the constant language barrier
in a maturely comedic way to make its very unoriginal yet
somehow oddly refreshing point that, in not understanding
each other through language, they are forced to understand
each other in a deeper sense. Their pain and confusion at
being marginalized binds them together as outsiders finding
The actors are absolutely perfect. Bychkov has a dryly humorous
charm that manifests itself in Ivanís bemused take on the
situation, how just because he doesnít understand it doesnít
mean he isnít going to process it and make sense of it. Haapasalo
plays Veiko like a frat boy whose experiences have forced
him to accept defeat as a way to overcome it. And Juuso has
an almost ethereal beauty, and she gives Anni an unfettered
radiance that goes a long way in facilitating her manipulations.
She plays both mother and lover to these men, and her acceptance
of the severity of life is the currency she uses to negotiate
the boundaries between those two roles. She is both the heart
and the brain of The Cuckoo.
But thereís something about the film that transcends the
simplicity of the story and digs itself into you. As a movie,
there isnít a whole lot here. But as an experience, I canít
even begin to explain the hold it takes. Itís both the best
movie Iíve seen this year, and not a movie at all. The best
I can see it, The Cuckoo is one of those unqualified
encounters, a drawn-out moment that uses its exoticism to
achieve an intense familiarity with its audience without even
trying. And how do you place a rating on something like that?
I canít, and so I wonít. Quality isnít an issue in this case.
For The Cuckoo, feeling and response are all that matter.