She's making peace one man at a time
Writer-director Aleksandr Rogozhkin's film is set during Finland's exit from World War II in September of 1944. As it opens, a pacifist Finnish sniper named Veikko (Ville Haapasalo), deemed a coward by his fellow soldiers, is dressed in a Nazi uniform and leg-ironed to a rock, left to fend for himself as his unit retreats from the advancing Russian army. Meanwhile, a Russian officer named Ivan (Viktor Bychkov), on his way to a court martial for writing subversive poetry, is injured when a Russian fighter mistakenly bombs his car. Ivan is discovered by a young Sami widow named Anni (Anni-Christina Juuso), who takes him back to her little farm on the tundra in order to nurse him back to health. When Veikko escapes his bonds after hours of clever effort, he too arrives on Anni's farm where he, the woman, and the enemy officer are faced with barriers of language, culture, and ideology. Veikko is relieved to be through with the war; Ivan is distrustful of this young "fascist" in a German uniform; and Anni, alone on her farm for the past four years, longs for male companionship, though her affections incite jealousy and hurt feelings between the already wary men.
The Cuckoo is one more entry in a growing tradition of films about enemy combatants forced by dire circumstances to bridge gaps and recognize one another's humanity for the sake of their own survival. Films like 1968's Hell in the Pacific, starring Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune as fighter pilots trapped together on a remote island; 2001's No Man's Land, which uses the recent chaos in Bosnia as its backdrop; and Wolfgang Petersen's 1985 science fiction flick, Enemy Mine, use the same formula to make the same point: war only makes sense when an enemy's humanity is obscured in the roiled mass of an army; met face-to-face, he's harder to hate. The Cuckoo separates itself from the pack by being more character study than exegesis of war, a feat it achieves largely through the presence of Anni. The addition of a female character, whose relationship to the two soldiers is various combinations of mother, friend, and lover, grounds the tale's dynamics in those concerns which are most fundamentally human (food, shelter, sex), while adding a layer of complexity by giving us three relationships instead of the standard two.
Rogozhkin's script makes cleverer use of the tri-part language barrier than one would expect as the characters understand each other far more than they are in the dark. Though they speak across one another, each in a language the others don't comprehend, the conversations—when grounded in the basic necessities of existence—cleverly meld so the subtitles read very much like standard dialogue. Only when nationalism and ideology rear their ugly heads do the characters baffle one another. Most of the confusion is played for gentle comedy, but Rogozhkin and his excellent cast succeed in seamlessly inserting moments of dramatic tension and sincere poignancy, too. Viktor Bychkov is a Russian film star, Ville Haapasalo a Finnish up-and-comer, and The Cuckoo is Anni-Christina Juuso's feature film debut. All three deliver impressively grounded, natural performances in a character-driven format that would tempt many actors into workshop self-indulgence. The authenticity of their work gives the film an almost documentary feel that focuses our attention on the characters as people rather than on the ideas that shape the script. The result is an engrossing piece of entertainment whose brain doesn't overpower its heart.
Columbia TriStar's DVD presents the film's cool, blue- and green-shifted cinematography in a sharp 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. There's some mild haloing from edge enhancement, but the image is incredibly detailed. The print is clean, although there are minor scratches here and there. Audio—Dolby Digital 5.1 surround in Russian, Finnish, and Lapp—isn't particularly aggressive (although the scene in which the Russian plane bombs Ivan's car has some punch), but surrounds are smartly used to create a convincing ambient space, and dialogue is always crystal clear.
In addition to the feature, the disc offers a 24-minute making-of featurette with contributions from the film's director, stars, producer, cinematographer, and composer. The piece is mostly full screen (clips from the film are presented at the proper 1.85:1 ratio) with Dolby surround audio and English subtitles. The participants focus on the film's themes and how they shaped the performances, visual aesthetics, and music. It's a decent little piece that provides some extra context that may enhance one's experience of the film.
Supplements are rounded out by theatrical trailers for The Cuckoo as well as three other films released under Columbia TriStar's Sony Pictures Classics label: Man Without a Past, Masked and Anonymous, and Respito.
In the end, The Cuckoo is entirely satisfying, a simple, precise, and fresh variation on an old theme. All parties are found not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Making-Of Featurette
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