Houston Press
Jean Oppenheimer

The Fellini-aping House of Fools has good intentions

A black comedy set inside a psychiatric hospital in the Russian Republic of Chechnya, House of Fools (Dom durakov in Russian) bears the unmistakable – and not wholly welcome – trappings of a Fellini-esque free-for-all. Winner of the Special Grand Jury Prize at the 2002 Venice Film Festival and Russia's submission for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar, this latest work from writer-director Andrei Konchalovsky (Runaway Train, The Inner Circle) contrasts the relatively benign craziness of a group of mental patients with the far greater insanity of war. (This theme recalls Phillipe de Broca's 1967 cult favorite, King of Hearts, an anti-war comedy-drama that introduced American audiences to Alan Bates and Genevieve Bujold.) The intent is worthy even if the message is obvious. The bigger problem is that the execution is both overly indulgent and, at times, precious.

Most interesting about the film is that it's based on an actual incident in which the entire staff at a mental institution in the North Caucuses fled its collective duties when fighting between Russian and Chechen troops spilled onto hospital grounds. Left to their own devices, the patients organized themselves and, in effect, ran the asylum, with the more functional inmates assuming the greatest responsibility.

Using that as a backdrop, Konchalovsky centers his film on a beautiful young patient named Janna (Iuliya Vysotskaya) who lives in her own dream world, a world in which she is engaged to marry pop star Bryan Adams (who appears in the film as himself, albeit only in fantasy sequences). Janna soothes herself and the other, far more unruly patients by playing the accordion.

When the good-natured Chechen soldiers set up camp in the facility, Janna befriends them. One of them, Ahmed (Sultan Islamov), jokingly asks her to marry him. She accepts, then is haunted by guilt that she will be breaking Bryan Adams's heart. Meanwhile, Ali (Stanislav Varkki), another patient at the facility, is clearly in love with Janna, something she fails to recognize.

Vysotskaya's depiction of a sweet but delusional young woman may be accurate, but one can't help but feel that she has been unduly influenced by Giulietta Masina's performance in Fellini's La Strada. Masina's goofy little gamin was totally believable (and heartbreaking), whereas Vysotskaya comes off as mannered.

Other references to Fellini can be felt in colorful fantasy sequences that not only have a carnival atmosphere but are set to Nino Rota-esque circus music (the reality portions of the picture have a more muted, monochromatic look). Fellini's films were a kind of celebration of the excessive and the grotesque. Konchalovsky may have been aiming for that same spirit – many of the film's hospital residents are actual asylum patients with crippling physical deformities and pronounced mental aberrations – but the result has more in common with avant-garde or experimental theater.