David Grunes

Some of you will recall the hoopla and controversy over the Russian and French film House of Fools (Dom durakov) by Andrei Konchalovsky, Nikita Mikhalkov's brother and the author of the screenplay for Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (1966). Some proclaimed the film, which won the Grand Special Jury Prize at Venice, a masterpiece, while others denounced it as a trite mess. This is the one set in a mental hospital near the Russian-Chechnyan border during the Chechnyan War. By turns Chechnyan and Russian soldiers take over the place, and by the end a Chechnyan soldier, hiding from Russians, is taken into their fold by the patients, who have learned firsthand about the horrors of war. The film is allegedly based on an actual incident.

Some of the film is loopy and lame, in the King of Hearts mold (Philippe de Broca, 1967); but in its portrayal of the discombobulating effects of war, it is powerful. The film is no more than punctuated by gory, horrific violence, but Konchalovsky makes it seem as though the film is steeped in the madness and violence of war, which periodically seems to erupt without warning, despite the fact that, after a while, we are bracing ourselves for the next eruption. I was shaken, appalled, sickened, horrified.

One of the satirical comedy's oddities that truly commends it as unique is its gentle portrayal of the soldiers on both sides, especially in contrast to the mental patients, many of whom are obstreperous and rambunctious. Yevgeny Mironov gives a quiet, heartbreaking performance as a Russian officer who begs out of the doctor a "strong" injection and a promise not to tell his men while also insisting he hasn't known a moment's fear in combat. Clearly, the young man is so entrenched in ungluing terror that he can no longer objectify and recognize it in himself; he is in its grip, but he has a job of leadership to do, and at all costs he will do this job for the sake of his company. But Mironov's is only one of a bunch of sterling performances in the film, including Sultan Islamov's as a Chechnyan soldier, Vladas Bagdonas's as the doctor, and Stanislav Varkki's as Ali, a brooding patient who always carries a security sack on his back. Most commentators have fallen over themselves in praise of the lead performance by Iuliya Vyotskaya, whose Janna is a patient, at first seemingly near recovery, who disintegrates under the stark pressure that war exerts on her; I was not so convinced by Vyotzkaya as I was by the other actors. The film was shot at an actual rural insane asylum just outside Moscow.

I do recommend the film, although I feel that Janna's infatuation with Bryan Adams, who appears in her fantasies, is ridiculous. War is not the only thing for which one must brace oneself: Adams, Canada's Barry Manilow, sings one of his dreadful pop ballads over and over again throughout the film.