It's a dandy – if familiar – conceit: The world of a lunatic asylum is contrasted with the world outside and turns up little difference, madness being more relative than absolute. The folks locked up simply have more incapacitating delusions, while those roaming free engage in the state-certified madness of war.
That's the setup in the newest offering from Russian filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky, best known here for his 1985 Runaway Train, based on Akira Kurosawa's original script. For House of Fools (the Russian selection for the Academy Awards), Konchalovsky drew on a true story: In 1996, asylum inmates on the Chechen border were abandoned by the staff, yet managed to organize themselves and survive. The filmmaker fleshes out that bare-bones event by exploring the impact of the Chechen War on the fragile, disoriented inmates after a band of Chechen soldiers arrives to set up camp. Janna (Iuliya Vysotskaya), a lovely young woman who pacifies the more violent patients with her accordion music and kindness, falls for Chechen soldier Ahmed (Sultan Islamov). Deluded that he wants to marry her, she's torn by her "betrayal" of her imagined fiancé, Canadian pop singer Bryan Adams (playing himself). Ahmed moves on with his fellow soldiers, claiming he was never marriage-minded. But the reversals of war conspire to bring Ahmed back to the asylum, where Janna and the other inmates – crazy like foxes – take him into the fold, cleverly shielding him from the Russian enemy.
Initially, the film is hard to watch. In search of authenticity, Konchalovsky cast actual inmates of an institution, some of whom are deformed or retarded. In fact, the seamless ensemble work makes it hard to distinguish patients from professional actors. The cheap film stock looks bathed in acid. And at times the action, shot in jagged style from the inmates' perspective, becomes hard to follow.
But the film gradually seduces with its mix of dark humor and pathos, poetic, circus-like music, and haunting characters. In one dramatic highlight, the severely depressed Ali, who's enamored of Janna and inseparable from a knapsack full of his poetry, begs her not to leave with Ahmed because she "belongs" in the inmate community. Injecting a raucous humor, a busty, middle-aged patient in harlequin glasses is forever leading the charge in a booming voice like some Chechen Ethel Merman. With his comb-over and hound-dog gaze, Ahmed is an amusingly unlikely amorous object. Most touching is Janna, conveyed by the talented Vysotskaya (who spent two months with inmates in a clinic before filming), in some porous limbo between madness and reason. Her kindness, whether playing accordion for the clinic's "aerobics" class or making Ahmed feel like a prince, subverts the notion of insanity by placing a premium on humanity. In fact, the world of the asylum forms a cohesive community, complete with a code of responsibility toward members, that seems not to exist outside. Konchalovsky slyly leaves us to draw our own conclusions.