Humor based on verbal incomprehension has a long, distinguished history, but few specimens of it have been so pure–or so funny–as this little Russian movie. At 99 minutes “The Cuckoo” seems a bit overextended for its very simple story, and its finale takes the mysticism too far, but for the most part this is a charming, curiously touching picture.
The set-up is very simple. A Finnish soldier, Veiko (Ville Haapasalo), dressed in an SS uniform, is chained to an exposed rock by departing German soldiers, obviously so that he’ll be picked off by the advancing Russians. He escapes, however, and makes his way to the isolated house of Anny (Anni-Kristina Juusso), a Lapp woman. She, however, has already rescued a wounded Soviet soldier, Sholti (Viktor Bychkov), the sole survivor in a convoy that had been taking him to the rear to face charges of disloyalty. What follows is a comedy of errors as the three, unable to understand one another, bicker and misinterpret what’s said to them. Of particular relevance is the Russian’s hatred of the Finn, whom he dismisses as a committed fascist despite Veiko’s efforts to inform him that he’s an unwilling conscript whose war is over. Sholti is also discomfited by Anny’s apparent romantic preference for the younger man over him. Things get more serious toward the close as one of the men is shot and Anny undertakes a mystical ritual to summon his soul back to the land of the living.
“The Cuckoo” has problems. The sequence showing Velko escaping the rock on which he’s been pinned is so protracted that one might think it was intended as a “how to” short. At times the misunderstanding among the principals extends to the audience: it’s not always made crystal clear what’s happening between them. And the final act gets a mite too cloying and extravagantly magical for its own good. The concluding twist doesn’t quite make sense, either.
But the flaws are easily trumped by the delightful interplay between the actors, the clever moments of disagreement and reconciliation, and the fascinating environment in which the action is set. “The Cuckoo” is a fragile conceit, but Rogozhin proves mostly adept at keeping it from collapsing into mawkishness or stridency, and he earns plenty of smiles in the process.