Alexander Rogozhkin, 2003, Russian, Finnish, Lapp with English subtitles, 100 mins
Anni Kristiina Juuso, Ville Haapasalo and Viktor Bychkov
The premise alone is interesting: three strangers - a Russian soldier, a Finnish sniper and a Lapp woman - are thrown together in little more than a tent in wartime Finland. Their attempts to communicate with each other in their own languages lead to the not entirely unexpected comic and tragic results. But the film is not simply an objective exploration of the limits and possibilities of language: it goes deeper, probing the basis of human relationships in a tender, amusing storytelling.
The characters resist using mime, which from personal experience would seem the most obvious choice when trying to communicate something like 'I'm building us a sauna' across the language barrier. If they had used mime, however, it would undoubtedly be a completely different film. Instead, on-screen contact is minimal (save for the passionate nights within the tent - but they come later) and the characters communicate almost entirely through intonation and expression. This serves them nicely on simpler matters like food, sickness and sex, but just can't convey the subtleties of personality in the solider-turned-pacifist or poet, and this is exactly the point the film is aiming for. It's here that the complexities of the relationships become apparent to us, the audience. We're placed in a privileged position of knowledge where the subtitles reveal information to us that is not available to the characters themselves.
The film owes its impact almost entirely to how the characters interplay in this scenario, made possible by the compelling performances of the three-strong cast. Veiko, the Finnish sniper, is played charmingly by Ville Haapasalo (who wouldn't look out of place in a Hollywood film). His clear, lively face and boyish good looks lend an immediate sympathy to the student made a soldier; educated, eloquent and naïve. It's no accident that in his unceasing efforts to communicate and make friends, he is the one who is never understood. For him, matters are clear-cut: deserted by his army and left chained to a rock, the war is over. It is never made clear precisely why Veiko has been left on that rock, despite a lengthy escape, which apart from aptly demonstrating his resourcefulness and dedication, seems out of place with the narrative. This is the first of two moments in the film when we share Veiko's inner world, both of which are puzzling in their misplaced emphasis on the sniper above the other two characters.
Ivan (Viktor Bychkov), the Russian Solider who also finds himself in Anni's tent following a narrow escape, is perhaps the hardest to read. A subversive poet embittered by his experiences, he has a dark sense of humour but obstinately refuses to understand Veiko's friendly attempts at peace brokering, choosing instead to make numerous attempts to kill him. It is left to the audience, able to understand both men thanks to the subtitles, to appreciate the similarities between the two.
However, it is Anni to whom the film belongs in every sense. Because the circumstances that brought these men to her home don't matter to her, they cease to matter to the film. In fact, only Anni seems above all the confusion caused by the different languages: sure, the men are incomprehensible, but that doesn't stop her either going about her daily life, or assimilating them into that life. When she decides that she's been without a man too long and takes a fancy to Veiko, she doesn't need language to communicate her desires. She brings them both back from the point of death - literally in the case of Veiko. Following the final confrontation with Ivan, a misunderstanding of truly linguistic proportions, an over-long death sequence begins, with Anni following her grandmother's teachings to call her young paramour back to life. It begins as a fascinating glimpse of a Shamanic ritual but, as with Veiko's escape at the beginning, it seems to labour the point.
The final trump card belongs to Anni in a neatly engineered if not entirely surprising ending that in one swift scene takes the position of knowledge away from the audience and gives it to her. Anni Kristiina Juuso obviously has a lot of fun with the part, toying with both the soldiers' ignorance, and their competition over her as well as our knowledge as an audience. Even the title of the film, ostensibly named after the slang for a sniper, ultimately belongs to her.
It's a satisfying conclusion to events - no big twist or saccharine ending to mar the beautifully understated relationships that have built up. Instead, the film ultimately decides that, fun though the experiment was, everyone needs to belong somewhere, and, well, to speak to someone who will understand what they are on about.