In Andrei Konchalovsky's House of Fools, a powerful new Russian film about war, love and madness, we see a fantastic situation, something out of a nightmare, that its writer-director insists is based on fact. In the midst of the Chechnyan war, with Russian tank squads and Chechnyan militia roaming the streets of a small city near the border, an undermanned little mental institution is abandoned by its staff and their doctor (Vladas Bagdonas), who is desperately seeking safe transport for his charges. The inmates – a mix of violent and nonviolent patients, including sweet, accordion-playing Janna (Iuliya Vysotskaya) – are, it seems, at the mercy of two military factions: the more clean-cut Russians and the raffish Chechnyans. They are also suddenly prey to the bloodshed, riot and heartbreak in the world outside. Madness reigns, within and without.
House of Fools is Konchalovsky's re-examination of that old dramatic proposition – most famously shown in Philippe De Broca's Vietnam-era classic King of Hearts (1966) – that war is insane, especially when contrasted with the lives of real lunatics. But Konchalovsky's madhouse world is more pungent than that of De Broca, who presented his liberated asylum in World War I-torn France as a fantasy refuge for artists, clowns and dreamers. Something similar is at play in House of Fools, but the asylum here resembles One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest set in civil war and reimagined by Fellini.
There's a Dostoevskian rawness to this movie's views of the patients and their world (re-created in an actual asylum outside Moscow), particularly the more grotesque ones like the bullying and delusional Vika (Marina Politseimako). Even the quieter or more seemingly rational patients, like Janna or her adorer Ali (Stanislav Varkki), are out of step – especially Janna, who believes she is the fiancée of the Canadian rock star Bryan Adams. The pop star appears to her vividly in dreams aboard a passing train, singing Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman as if it were an anthem to her alone.
What happens to Janna becomes the poignant center of House of Fools. She falls at first into the hands of the Chechnyans, including the gently buffoonish Ahmed (Sultan Islamov), who impulsively proposes to her; later, into the Russians' hands; and finally, into the no-man's-land of violence and destruction that imprisons them all. Konchalovsky's point is that the immediate experience of war is so ignoble and vicious that it degrades or damages everyone in its compass – most obviously the innocent bystanders.
Konchalovsky wrote the 1966 masterpiece Andrei Rublev for Tarkovsky and the classic 1979 epic Siberiade for himself, but he was absent from Russia for years, making movies like Runaway Train and Shy People in Hollywood. House of Fools is his definitive comeback. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, it's Konchalovsky's best Russian film since Siberiade. But it suffers a bit from the much-changed emotional climate; some have attacked it as naive, while also trying to debunk King of Hearts, a staple on American campuses throughout the late '60s.
Why? I wasn't in love with the whimsical, charming King of Hearts (in which British soldier Alan Bates takes refuge in a similarly abandoned madhouse during WWI) when I saw it during the Vietnam era, but it wasn't a film to ridicule. And the world of House of Fools, far more dangerous and deadly, is closer to the avalanche of horror other Russian war films, like Elem Klimov's devastating Come and See, have shown us. The asylum story itself is based on fact and shot in real facilities – and it's that mixture of reality and fantasy that makes House of Fools affecting.
Newcomer Vysotskaya is a powerful performer, even when she's competing with exploding bombshells and a madhouse full of capering lunatics. Yet it's the intensity of the whole story and vision that justifies House of Fools – a vision of war as lunacy that reappears in generation after generation, most persuasively argued by ex-warriors themselves.
House of Fools is a humane and fantastic work, and it touches us precisely because Konchalovsky shows the reality of both the soldiers and the madhouse inmates. His movie is just what he intended: a nightmare that speaks the truth.