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MOVIE REVIEW : Outmanned Finns vs. Russian Invaders in Epic ‘Talvisota’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Talvisota,” Finland’s official entry into the Oscar sweepstakes (AMC Century 14), is a classic war picture, at once intimate and epic, majestic and numbing, that commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Finns’ brave stand against Russian invaders, which began Nov. 30, 1939.

It is a grueling, superb and altogether rewarding achievement, with glorious cinematography and exceptional sound. It has a tremendous, agonizing immediacy yet preserves a detached perspective throughout. It has a whopping 196-minute running time, yet is so absorbing that it does not seem overly long.

Its strength is in its simplicity. In bringing his novel to the screen, writer Antti Tuuri and director Pekka Parikka have striven for an understated realism that takes us right into daily life in the trenches. The result is a collective portrait of sturdy, resilient men, most of whom are taciturn farmers sustained by a strong sense of community, a deep reverence for God and an earthy sense of humor. “Talvisota” is in no way anti-war but is rather a dignified tribute to those Finns who banded together to resist an invasion of their country against a mighty, if cumbersome and ill-prepared, oppressor.

Inevitably, the film brings to mind the Vietnam War. We witness the vastly outnumbered Finns managing for 105 days to summon the courage and determination to face wave after wave of Russian soldiers, backed up by tanks and bombers, in bitter winter weather (the title means “The Winter War”). One Finnish soldier remarks that there must be 50 Russians to each Finn, and that in fact was the ratio. Yet day after day the Finns struggle to hold their line with endless tenacity and ingenuity.

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Parikka and Tuuri resist exposition and the kind of sharp characterization that makes it easy for us to get a handle on these soldiers as distinctive individuals and personalities. Their approach is demanding, but it pays off as we realize we’re gradually getting to know the men in the same way they’re becoming acquainted with each other. They are men of the soil, given to few words among friends as well as strangers. Emerging as the film’s central figure is Martti Hakala (Taneli Makela), a stocky, blond, strong-featured farmer who takes orders stoically but who offers comfort to the terrified and the wounded. He keeps an eye on his younger brother Paavo (Konsta Makela), who during a furlough to recover from wounds observes that “none of us is going to come back alive.”

Paavo did not exaggerate by much. “Talvisota” (Times-rated Mature) ends with the coming of peace but with no indication that it was at the expense of 25,000 Finnish lives and the loss of considerable territory, including the Karelian Isthmus, “that dagger pointed at Leningrad,” a mere 20 miles away and therefore within artillery range of the Soviet city. On the other hand, the Russo-Finnish War cost the U.S.S.R. 200,000 lives, nearly 700 aircraft and 1,600 tanks. Finland received worldwide sympathy and preserved its independence.

‘TALVISOTA’

(‘THE WINTER WAR’)

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A National-Filmi Oy/Finnkino Oy production. Producer Marko Rohr. Director Pekka Parikka. Screenplay Antti Tuuri, Parikka; based on Tuuri’s novel. Camera Kari Sohlberg. Music Juha Tikka. Production designer Perttti Hilkamo. Costume designer Tuula Hilkamo. Military costumes Ilpo Nurmi. 2nd-unit camera Antti Hellstedt. Stunt coordinator Aldo Tamsaar. Film editor Keijo Virtanen. With Taneli Makela, Vesa Vierikko, Timo Torikka, Heikki Paavilainen, Antti Raivio, Esko Kovero, Martti Suosalo, Markku Huhtamo, Matti Onnismaa, Konsta Makela. In Finnish, with English subtitles.

Running time: 3 hours, 16 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature.


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