Sisu Movie Review

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Set in the 1944 ruins dotting the Finnish landscape during World War II, the deliriously fun roughness of the extravagant exploitation war flick “Sisu” is deeply nationalistic. Painted in the surprisingly reverent iconography of the prospector, the grizzled, bearded Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila)—fashioned in a simple woolen shirt and suspenders—exists out of place and time when he arrives at a quaint stream. With his horse and little gray dog by his side, he goes through what’s probably a familiar routine: He crouches down in the stream with his gold pan, sifting through the water for specks of gold. In it, he discovers a tiny nugget. He begins to dig holes, excavating the land as gunfire and exploding shells encroach upon his antiquated site. When he finally strikes the motherload, the gold’s glow is enough for him to fall back, crying tears of ecstasy.The word “sisu” is nearly untranslatable, but its closest meaning suggests an unbreakable determination, one that seems to even stave off passed away. Determination is exactly what Korpi will need when, on his way home with his fortune of nuggets hanging on his horse’s saddlebag, he comes across a band of sullen Nazis. The Nazis are hauling a kind of “treasure” (though these captives are not treated as such), a cadre of Finnish women. Despite his best efforts, the soldiers discover his loot, setting off a action for the mined prize.It would be easy to watch writer/director Jalmari Helander’s viciously bloody flick for its exploitation cinema, spaghetti Western, and 1980s action roots, which owes its riches to Sergio Leone’s films and “Rambo: First Blood,” respectively. The man of few words character that Tommila portrays is certainly cut from the same cloth as Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name. Similar to Rambo, he also carries an unlikely resume: Korpi is a former special forces soldier so prolific in his executing of Russians during the Winter War (he purportedly has finished 300 of them to avenge the execute of his wife and daughter) that they consider him an unbeatable ghost. That information, however, isn’t enough to deter the German company’s savage commander Bruno (Aksel Hennie). With the war nearing its end and the specter of war crimes looming large, Bruno sees the gold as his ticket out of future punishment. In their struggle, the film piles bodies as high as a Rambo passed away count. But “Sisu” is more than its enjoyable carnage.Conventionally, prospectors have been symbolic harbingers of colonization and land theft. They arrive to siphon the vital resources of an area belonging to a local indigenous population. In America, gold rushes have been an extension of manifest destiny. But Helander subtly shifts such historical expectations.

It’s telling, for instance, how Helander and cinematographer Kjell Lagerroos capture the grim Finnish landscape: a desolate hellscape ravaged by craters, villages burned asunder, composed of bodies hanging from telephone poles. The country’s entire infrastructure, from the ground to its forms of communication, has been broken by bullets, bombs, and landmines. When Korpi breaks the tranquil ground around the stream to open the film, digging holes that look like craters, he isn’t doing so to smash its body definition. He is a local man who can be interpreted as taking up the gold to protect one of his country’s few remaining resources. The Nazis are, of course, rendered as the colonizers, attempting to steal the lone treasure they haven’t finished in this country. It’s a thrilling subversion of the historical image of the prospector to deploy a deeply nationalistic message.

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