Antiwar movies face a challenging task in times of conflict, when the bellicose want to avoid any voices of reason. As the situation in Iraq escalated, some Americans charged that merely wishing nations could settle their differences without bloodshed was unpatriotic. Soldiers are still losing their lives on an almost daily basis, yet the attempt to stifle dissent continues.
It's nuts. But The Cuckoo, opening this weekend at the Roxy in Burlington, might be a refreshing antidote to the disease of jingoism. Happily, writer-director Alex-ander Rogozhkin offers a message about peace laced with pointed humor instead of earnest didacticism.
Set in 1944, the story follows three people from different cultures thrown together in the waning days of World War II. Although they don't understand each other's languages, they babble constantly in a futile effort to communicate. These characters are all outcasts, probably the one thing they have in common.
Veiko, played by Ville Haapasalo, is a Finnish university student forced to fight for the Nazis when his country allies itself with Germany. He has no enthusiasm for the fascist cause. As punishment, his commanders leave him chained to a rock.
A Russian officer, Ivan (Viktor Bychkov), has been accused of writing poetry that demeans the Soviet Union. He's a victim of friendly fire when his own side's planes strafe the convoy taking him to a court martial.
A Lapp native named Anni drags Ivan to safety. Portrayed by Anni-Kristina Juuso, this pixie of a woman lives alone in a simple hut -- full of amulets and charms -- on a remote reindeer farm.
She nurses Ivan back to health with a potion of reindeer milk and blood. Mean-while, Veiko cleverly frees himself from the rock and stumbles onto Anni's land, looking for a way to cut off his remaining shackles. Suspicious that pacifist Veiko is the enemy, Ivan goes into a kill-or-be-killed mode.
The widowed Anni, who's been without a man since the military took her husband away four years earlier, ignores their macho rants -- which she can't decipher anyway. She just wants sex. Both her visitors comply.
This earthy menage-a-trois is complicated by dialogue in Russian, Finnish and Sami, the Lapp tongue. English subtitles provide an overview of how each protagonist consistently misinterprets what the others are trying to say. Mistaking Ivan's exhortation to "get lost" for an introduction, Veiko begins calling him "Gerlost." There is no meeting of the minds, of course, when Veiko tries to reassure Ivan by boasting about his familiarity with the writings of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.
Rogozhkin's comic tone is only lost during an extended hallucinatory sequence, in which Anni uses ritual Lapp magic to draw a feverish Veiko back from the brink of death. This sequence is not uninteresting, just too long.
Far less bitter than the Oscar-winning No Man's Land, another recent satire about the madness of war, Cuckoo sticks to bemused commentary on the absurd human condition.
The human condition could not get much grimmer than in the slums of Rio. City of God is the name of one such sprawling hellhole. It is also the title of a gripping motion picture, by Brazil's Fer-nando Meirelles, that has been held over for another week at the Roxy.
The South American country, celebrated worldwide for its lively music and dance, has been plagued for decades by squalor, hopelessness and drug-dealing teen gangs. In the film, L'il De (Leandro Firmino da Hora) is a youthful psychopath who works his way up the ladder of crime and violence-for-the-sake-of-violence in the 1970s. His counterpart-with-a-conscience is the equally poor Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), an aspiring photojournalist.
In a society where everyone must choose between succumbing to the dark side and struggling to do the right thing, kindly Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge) loses that battle. When his girlfriend is raped and some of his family members are murdered, he becomes a gun-toting avenger. Benny (Phelipe Haagen-sen), a compatriot of L'il De who wants to trade in the bad vibes for a gentle hippie existence, is another casualty of street warfare.
All this Sturm und Drang unfolds with remarkable visual panache and convincing performances by a cast of mostly nonprofessionals. Although some critics suggest Meirelles' stylish feature debut might glorify senseless carnage, the unflinching tragedy on screen ultimately keeps City of God on the side of the cinematic angels.