Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Philip Martin

Whenever you happen across a movie set in a mental hospital – Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor, Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, James Mangold's Girl, Interrupted – you can be certain that one of the assumptions driving the film is that the world outside is at least as insane as the one contained by the asylum. And so, one might be prepared to regard House of Fools, the latest film by the Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky, as something of an elevated, intellectual cliche. When you hear that this particular "nuthouse" is located in the tiny republic of Ingushetia, near the Russian-Chechen border during the first Chechen war in 1996, you might begin to erect certain expectations, you might assume that the film is about demonstrating the inherent insanity of war. No doubt the inmates will prove more humane, healthier than the soldiers they will invariably encounter. And to be honest, there is a certain triteness to the film – a pat, obligatory nature to some of the scenes that is only partially redeemed by the director's consistently interesting visual attack.

From the first shot, a low-angle view of an ominous, otherworldly railroad trellis, it's clear that we're watching the product of a singular and somehow painterly vision. We catch sight of the mental patients, framed in a window, watching for the nightly train – a train piloted by the Canadian pop idol Bryan Adams, crooning what even he must consider one of his worst power ballads, the bathetic Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman. Adams, of course, is a projection from the mind of the key patient, a virginal young woman named Janna (Iuliya Vysotskaya), apparently the daughter of circus freaks. Janna floats around the hospital, playing her accordion, which has the power to soothe tensions and infuse the other blue-gray scenes with a humming honey warmth. She believes Adams her fiancé, and that, as soon as he completes his tour, he will come to retrieve her.

Janna seems to be a favorite among the other inmates (many of whom are portrayed, sometimes with heartbreaking results, by actual mental patients), though she's hardly the leader. When the kindly doctor in charge leaves to find a bus in which to evacuate his charges from what has become a combat zone, the only really reliable presence is a gentle poet named Ali (Stanislav Varkki) who seems to occupy some gray position between patient and caretaker. Before the doctor returns, the Chechens arrive to occupy the hospital, and Janna becomes briefly infatuated with a hapless soldier named Ahmed (Sultan Islamov). For a while she considers marrying him, rather than Adams. But the Chechen presence draws Russian fire; there is a remarkable, shattering scene where Janna, wrapped in wedding white and distraught over her newly beloved's imperative bugging out, kneels in the mud beseeching him to stay, oblivious to the helicopter crashing behind her.

It is impossible to say exactly what Konchalovsky means by all this, and one is given to wonder exactly how much of this allegedly true story happened this way, but the overall effect is mesmerizing. While there are scenes that are brutal to watch, the most striking feature of the film is the fundamental decency and even gentleness of both the soldiers and the mad. About the worse that happens to the frightening vulnerable Janna is some teasing – perhaps she's protected from all manner of savagery by her sweet, gawky faith in the good intentions of others. Vysotskaya – who had a small role in Menno Meyjes' Max – is a revelation as this damaged spirit with a speech impediment, her star power apparent even as her words are filtered through subtitles.

None of this is exactly what we'd expect from a filmmaker who – despite having directed the excellent Runaway Train (1985) and the nearly great, nearly forgotten Shy People (1987) – is probably best known in this country as the guiding hand behind either the Sylvester Stallone-Kurt Russell actioner Tango & Cash or the Whoopie Goldberg-James Belushi fiasco Homer & Eddie, both of which were released in 1989. Since then, perhaps in reaction to the genericizing effect of Hollywood money, he has worked mainly in Europe and often in television; only a lucky few Americans will get a chance to see this quirky, uneven but genuinely original film. If you're even remotely intrigued, you probably should give it a chance.