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The Cuckoo (PG-13)
Sony Pictures Classics
Official Site
Director: Aleksandr Rogozhkin
Producer: Sergei Selyanov
Written by: Aleksandr Rogozhkin
Cast: Anni-Kristiina Juuso, Ville Haapasalo, Viktor Bychkov

No Rating, read on

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 acceptance.

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.

óCole Sowell


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