The Seattle Post-Intelligencer
William Arnold

Andrei Konchalovsky's new Russian-language drama, House of Fools, is an often trying and not wholly successful but highly ambitious and ultimately rewarding mental-institution movie that strongly echoes the 1966 classic of the genre, King of Hearts.

Based on a true incident and set in the recent Chechen war, its the story of a psychiatric clinic near the Chechen border that's abandoned by its doctors and administrators when Chechen rebels and Russian forces converge on the town. So the inmates – who run the spectrum of dementia – have no choice but to fend for themselves, and the movie traces the way the more functional of them try to organize the others, plan an evacuation and deal with the succession of crises that come along.

As it does, the film's focus is an attractive young Chechen woman (Iuliya Vysotskaya) who has a fixation on Canadian singer Bryan Adams, who appears periodically throughout the film as a fantasy figure, wooing her in music-video-style serenades. But the script also branches out to chronicle a wide cast of bedlam characters, as well as frustrated characters in both invading armies, satirically contrasting the harsh insanity of their war with the more benign insanity of the patients.

It's quite an undertaking, and it doesn't quite come off. Its premise is far from original, the use of the real Adams somehow unbalances and trivializes the film, and unless you happen to know a lot about the Chechen troubles, you're sure to have a hard time getting oriented. But Vysotskaya gives a warm, charming, excruciatingly vulnerable performance as the nobly fixated heroine; and the use of a real institution as a location and real mental patients as minor characters gives the film the kind of authenticity that can't be faked.

Undeniably, Konchalovsky – whose career in Russia (Siberiada) and Hollywood (Runaway Train) spans 25 years – has a master's touch. Several of his scenes are uncannily alive and his chilling climax is a virtuoso piece of filmmaking.