A far cry from the proletarian dilapidation on display at BAM’s current Aki Kaurismäki retro, the Finland of The Cuckoo practically gleams with the intensity of a sylvan mythscape—an enchanted land more Middle Earth than anything recognizably earthly. Indeed, mythology is the operative word in Alexander Rogozhkin’s well-intentioned but sugarcoated anti-war allegory set in Lapland during World War II. If its characters (a pair of human warriors brought together by a gnomish peacemaker) seem Tolkienesque, the movie itself carries the more burdensome weight of a religious parable: Love Thy Neighbor.
The Cuckoo begins promisingly with a sequence as spare as anything in the Kaurismäki oeuvre: Veiko (Ville Haapasalo), a Finnish soldier convicted of pacifism, is chained to a boulder by his compatriots and left to fend for himself with only a rifle and a few days’ rations. Though bookish, Veiko evinces a Boy Scout’s resourcefulness, improvising crude tools to extricate himself. Rogozhkin films his endeavor with an appropriately workmanlike attention to minutiae as well as an overall appreciation for the sounds of silence: This near wordless scene is a model of economy—a virtue that goes AWOL once the movie’s mute physicality transforms into something altogether more garrulous.
Prometheus thus unbound, Veiko stumbles onto the farm of Lapp pixie Anni (Anni-Kristiina Juuso), who happens to be nursing a member of the opposition, a Russian soldier named Ivan (Viktor Bychkov). Linguistic chaos ensues: Veiko speaks Finnish; Ivan, Russian; and Anni, the indigenous language Sami. An obvious metaphor for European ethnic strife, this three-way disconnect treads uneasily between polemic and slapstick, never sure how much wild gesticulating to unleash before name-checking A Farewell to Arms and other seminal war fiction. Sweetly above it all, Juuso’s Anni is a dumpling-cute earth sprite whose bizarre getups and ability to wail for skull-shattering durations bring to mind that other Scandinavian diminutive, Björk. One can only imagine the convulsive fury the Icelandic pop diva would have afflicted on this staid production.
While recent war films (No Man’s Land, Devils on the Doorstep) have stirred the multilingual pot for satirical effect, The Cuckoo does it to plug a warm and fuzzy humanism. Why can’t we all just get along? The title’s morphing significance (which cross-references each character’s culture) is meant to unify these three outcasts under their own Family of Man. Predictably, Eve and her two Adams learn to do more than just get along. By the time the insatiable Anni seduces Veiko and then Ivan, the movie’s do-good mantra has devolved into something cruder, if not strangely anachronistic: Make Love, Not War.