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Kukushka (Cuckoo)

(2003) *** Unrated
100 min. distributer. Director: Alexander Rogozhkin. Cast: Anni-Kristina Juuso, Ville Haapasalo, Viktor Bychkov, Anni-Kristiina Juuso, Alexei Kashnikov.

Writer-director Aleksandr Rogozhkin says of his film Cuckoo "We have not had a cinema of this kind before," which is a bit misleading and a trifle hyperbolic. Jumping off from the notion of the Tower of Babel, rebuilt in the context of a world war, Rogozhkin ups the ante of miscommunication to play out among three characters instead of between the usual two. The formula works to good effect in this absurdities-of-war picture, but it's hardly a cinematic breakthrough to add a character to Hell in the Pacific or Enemy Mine.

At any rate, Cuckoo is an artsier variation on those Hollywood adventures, with little in the way of distracting pyrotechnics. In fact, when not crossing conversations spoken in multiple languages, Rogozhkin lets the story play out silently.

In Lapland of September 1944, a Finnish outfit forsakes one of its own, a "pacifist" sniper named Veiko (Ville Haapasalo). For his dissention, Veiko is chained to a rock and dressed in the SS uniform of the army's German allies. It is a death sentence, as a Russian soldier is bound to show up at any time, primed to shoot Germans on sight.

Russian soldier Ivan (Viktor Bychkov) is likewise estranged from his unit. Accused of anti-Soviet sedition, Ivan escapes, wounded, from a friendly fire incident. Anni (Anni-Kristiina Juuso), a Lapp reindeer farmer, completes the motley troika when she finds and takes in Ivan. Soon, Veiko finds his way to Anni's farm, and a bizarre dance of miscommunication--including ironic brushes with lucidity--ensues.

Cuckoo is solid all around and, within its ring of sweet, brusque, and confused characters, earns both humor and an emergent tenderness. The landscape, an unspoken fourth character in the proceedings, lends a similar light-and-shadow ambience, balanced by the subdued color of flora breaking through harsh conditions.

If the story amounts to something as didactic as it is dramatic, blame the familiarity of the story (recent years have yielded plenty of similar imports, like the more complex Prisoner of the Mountains and No Man's Land) and not the actors. Each invites credible identification, and Juuso--in her film debut--makes Anni's sexy-maternal catalysis of human understanding both fetching and heartfelt.

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