Bruce Kirkland

Russia entered Andrei Konchalovsky's House of Fools in the 2003 Oscar race as best foreign-language film.

That indicates one of two things, or perhaps both. One: This is a lousy time for the famed Russian cinema. Two: Konchalovsky, who has worked extensively in the West as well as in his homeland, is held in high regard in Russia no matter what. Not surprisingly, because it is a mediocre film, House of Fools did not get nominated for an Oscar, although quality is not always among the main criteria in that mystifying category.

In the film, Konchalovsky, who also serves as the writer and co-producer, tells an oddball story that was supposedly inspired by true events during the ongoing war in Chechen. The setting is a dingy psychiatric hospital whose staff and residents are seemingly oblivious to the war between rebellious Chechens and the Russians troops sent in to quell them. Their main preoccupation is the enchanted nightly passing of a train over a nearby bridge that is visible through the barred windows of the institution. It breaks a dreary monotony. But, one day, all hell breaks loose. The staff abandons the hospital as Chechen troops invade, taking over the grounds as a base of operations. The Chechens won't be there for long before the Russians arrive. The hospital is a battleground.

There is a war-is-hell subtheme to the piece that is merely a given and not emphasized in the usual way. Of course it's hell, the film seems to say, and all the soldiers act as insane as the inmates who take over the asylum. Neither side is glorified. Konchalovsky also uses camp humour to emphasize the absurdity. The Russian and Chechen soldiers conduct a thriving trade during lulls in the fighting. Meanwhile, interactions between the Chechens and the crazy people get – well – crazy.

Our heroine (spirited and empathetic Iuliya Vysotskaya in her first major role) is an attractive young woman who plays the accordion and waits for the day that her fiancé, Canadian pop star Bryan Adams, comes to collect her for the wedding and honeymoon. The enterprising Adams does show up in the film, and sings, but he is actually a figment of her imagination. This central plot device might have turned House of Fools into an eccentric and beguiling film. But the plot lurches about like a drunken soldier, firing off rounds of whimsy and shots of serious nonsense instead of crafting a strong single story. We go off on so many tangents that we lose interest in any single character. Don't much care about the whole house of people, either, not that any ill is intended. It is just that the film is so scattered that it fails to emotionally engage the viewer.

That makes us voyeurs, not participants, unlike watching the American classic, Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Nobody flies anywhere interesting in House of Fools.