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HOUSE OF FOOLS (Dom durakov) (director/writer: Andrei Konchalovsky; cinematographer: Sergei Kozlov; editor: Olga Grinshpun; music: Eduard Artemyev; cast: Juliya Vysotskaya(Janna), Sultan Islamov (Ahmed), Evgeni Mironov (Officer), Stanislav Varkki (Ali), Elena Fomina (Lucy), Marina Politseimako (Vika), Vladas Bagdonas (Doctor), Ruslan Naurbiev (Chechen Commander Vakhid), Bryan Adams (Himself), Gevorg Ovakimyan (Goga), Rasmi Dzhabrailov (Makhmud); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Felix Kleiman; Paramount Classics; 2002-Russia, in Russian with English subtitles)

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Russian director-writer Andrei Konchalovsky (“Runaway Train”/”Shy People”/”Siberiada”) inspired by a true story of such an incident creates a heavy-handed black comedy using a mental hospital near Ingushetia’s border with Russia as a too obvious metaphor against the Chechen war in 1996. I don’t question the sincerity of this work, as it points to the transparent similarities of soldiers killing each other and the incarcerated mental patients not responsible for their actions. But this metaphorical madhouse theme is derivative and clumsily scripted and awkwardly executed; this romantic fantasy idea has been accomplished in a more artistic and subtle fashion before in films such as One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Philippe De Broca’s “King of Hearts” (1966) is the madhouse themed film that became a cult favorite and is still the best example of a film depicting the loonies making more sense than the power hungry. This film was tiresome, the plot was loaded down with pat paradoxes, the story was overloaded with metaphors that soon lost their punch, and the unconvincing characters carry on like they are in a freak show. Many of the actors were actually mental patients play-acting the roles of loonies in over-the-top set pieces that might have had a Russian charm but that homespun color was lost on me. The characters playing the roles of the soldiers also seemed unreal, as it was an army on both sides of gentle and caring people without any lust or killing instincts. Ummm!

The film is set in a rundown 19th-century mansion that serves as a mental hospital. Each night the inmate mix of Muslims and Russians, an archetypal created lovable gathering of holy fools, cluster around a window to watch a train pass by, whose lights and speed fascinates them as it gets them to imagine all sorts of wild things. The inmate the film focuses on is an attractive, kind-hearted, delusional accordion player named Janni (Juliya Vysotskaya). She pictures the train driven by none other than Bryan Adams, the popular London-based Canadian pop singer. As the train passes Bryan, who appears in this and other dream sequences, in between pouring out champagne for the passengers belts out his dreadful song “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?” Janni has come to believe that Bryan Adams is her fiancé.

The film goes through a scene of excessive loony inmate behavior, as an obese anarchist woman Vika spits on the floor in a show of contempt for the present Russian regime. Ali (Stanislav Varkki) is the most stable of the inmates and is a would-be schizophrenic poet, who keeps his verses in a backpack he never takes off even when sleeping. Makhmud is a run of the mill arsonist nut running around the asylum in a military uniform adorned with medals. Goga is a flaming cross-dresser faggot dressed in a fishnet jersey with no sense of reality, as he gives his pal Makhmud matches. There’s a dwarf, an hysterical woman swinging naked from the chandeliers, and an assortment of other nuts with tics and odd gestures. The patients are in the hands of the seemingly capable Russian doctor (Vladas Bagdonas), who looks like a cross between Lenin and Freud as he watches over his charges with a bemused smile as they carry on as loonies would in a Method Acting workshop.

One night there’s no radio or phone connections, and by next morning it’s clear the war is on as there are bombs going off all around the hospital grounds. The hospital staff has abandoned their patients as a Chechen outfit, under the command of a former Russian army officer Vakhid, take over the mental hospital. In the laundry room Janni’s accordion is played by a Chechen soldier named Ahmed (Sultan Islamov), who teasingly asks her to marry him. She takes him up on the offer, as all the patients dress her for the wedding and wish her well as she packs her suitcase and spends the night with Ahmed in the part of the hospital the soldiers have taken over. But in the morning the Russians counter-attack and Ahmed leaves her as he joins his army mates in retreat. In her delusional state she has become more disoriented than usual and doesn’t know what to make of the war. The filmmaker remains neutral, as he favors neither side in his depiction of the futility of the escalating conflict.

We are led to believe that the child-like inmates, despite all their problems, are saner than the powers that orchestrated this brutal war. Unfortunately, this is not one of this hit or miss filmmaker’s good films. Everything is too pat and tedious. Though no one in their right mind would dispute that war is mankind’s lunacy, the film failed to say anything that wasn’t already obvious and couldn’t reach higher terrain to make this a deeper allegorical truth by seamlessly touching on the Tolstoyan dream of universal brotherhood it clearly had in mind.

REVIEWED ON 10/29/2003 GRADE: C-

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”