The Los Angeles Times
Kevin Thomas

When it is announced at a film's opening that it is set in a mental institution on the Russia-Chechen border and its inmates are unaware that war is about to engulf them, it's impossible not to feel that old world-as-madhouse metaphor coming on. To director Andrei Konchalovsky's credit, in his exuberant and harrowing House of Fools, Russia's official entry into the last Oscars, he moves past this cliche to reveal that even as Chechens and Russians lay siege to the institution, it remains a refuge of humanity and kindness, an island of sanity, as it were, in a world gone mad.

In the film, inspired by an actual incident, Konchalovsky shows how the more stable of the inmates rise to the occasion and take charge when their kindly director goes off in search of buses to transport them to safety. The ability of the patients to care for each other is presented in a manner at once touching and credible, and it by and large disarms Russian and Chechen soldiers alike. It would seem that the patients' innocence serves to protect them.

This is especially true of the central character, Janna (Iuliya Vysotskaya), an accordion-playing young woman firmly convinced she is the fiancee of London-based Canadian pop star Bryan Adams, who appears throughout the film in Janna's romantic fantasies. At the same time a Chechen soldier, an actor named Ahmed (Sultan Islamov) jokingly proposes to her, which will reveal Janna's unexpected resilience.

Lamenting the ravages of war, Konchalovsky judges no one and offers compassion to one and all. A superbly shot film of emotional extravagance, sentimentality and even humor, House of Fools is a film that is ultimately quite moving but which probably could only have been pulled off by a director steeped in that famous Russian soul.