from Russian/Ukrainian/Belarus History
Kerry Kublis

House of Fools tells the story of an insane asylum caught in the chaos of the Chechen War

Most critics were disappointed by the Russian movie, Dom durakov, or House of Fools. They describe it as "disjointed," "cliched" and "tiresome." However, for anyone who understands the traditional treatment of the mentally imbalanced in Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, and for those familiar with the brutality of the Chechen War, this film is refreshing, poignant, and unexpectedly beautiful.

House of Fools is supposedly based upon a true story, but this detail adds nothing to a film so surreal that its story could only happen under the direction of someone with imagination and a sense of humor. Set in a hospital for "sick people" that is located on the Chechen border with Russia, a cast of touching, unusual characters gets caught in the middle of the war. The kind doctor at the hospital leaves his patients to find buses in order to conduct an evacuation, but he is hijacked along the way, leaving his patients to their own devices.

Janna, the central character in House of Fools, is an accordianist, a romantic, and clinically delusional. Daydream interludes with Bryan Adams, her absent paramour, are humorous; they effectively relieve the viewer from the chaos that pervades the entire film, just as they provide escape for Janna. Other characters include Ali, the protective poet with leadership skills; Vika, the emotional, opinionated, and politically minded wreck; Shorty, the observant dwarf; Goga, the hospital's "stylist," and Mahmud, the pyromaniac. Critics find the depiction of the mentally ill to be disgusting. However, the reality of Russian mental institutions is much worse. In fact, the cinematic treatment of these individuals is surprisingly sympathetic and gentle compared to the unforgiving conditions to which the mentally, emotionally, and physically challenged have long been subject in a Russia that hides them from "healthy" society.

The disorganized, bizarre actions of the hospital inmates in House of Fools as an analogy for the Russian reaction to the Chechen desire for independence may, in fact, be overly simplistic. Critics may find this cliched, but Janna's own desire for independence, the strong emotional bonds between the asylum patients, and their solidarity against soldiers invading their "home" carry the analogy further. A secondary theme, illustrating expressions of humanity despite the cruelty of war, is deepened by the soldiers' exchanges with the patients, as well as their exchanges with their enemies.

One scene that may be painfully cliched can be seen towards the end of the film. The viewer already understands that the insanity of the soldiers is equal to or greater than the insanity of the patients. However, director Andrei Konchalovsky finds it necessary to drive this point home; a Russian soldier with PTSD begs the doctor at the asylum to give him a shot of medicine to calm his nerves.

The colorful cast of characters and their inner (and outer) beauty are set against the dismal, dilapidated, and sometimes dangerous environment of the insane asylum. All characters become sympathetic characters, and the boundaries between good and bad, sane and insane, are broken. Placing the film within the context of reality, rather than placing it in a literary context, makes House of Fools ultimately enjoyable and its conclusion unexpected.