- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003


  Depicting the mentally ill on screen is always an iffy proposition — for every Oscar winner like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” there’s a “The Dream Team” mocking mental patients.
  Place Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky’s “House of Fools” (“Dom Durakov”) squarely in the middle of that psychiatric continuum.
  Inspired by true events, “Fools” depicts a mental hospital caught up in the ongoing Russian-Chechen hostilities. There is the befuddled war veteran, his military uniform dripping with medals on every available patch of cloth, as well as the paranoid screamer whose rants serve little purpose save comic relief.
  Movies generally manipulate mentally challenged characters to connect the plot points, and “Fools” doesn’t stray far from that pattern. Mr. Konchalovsky wastes little time with the patients’ clinical backgrounds. The director, whose American resume includes “Tango & Cash” (1989) and “Runaway Train” (1985), identifies war as mankind’s most dangerous form of insanity.
  Opening to the strains of carnival music, the movies introduces its ensemble: Janna (Julia Vysotsky), the lisping, lovable head of a wacky pack of fellow patients, powers the story with her illogical romances and spirited accordion playing. She doesn’t rant or rave, nor is she firmly rooted in reality. The film hammers that notion home via her undying love for Bryan Adams, the now faded Canadian singer who appears repeatedly in dream sequences throughout “Fools,” strumming away in soft dewy focus as the love of Janna’s fantasy life.
  The days at the hospital typically end with the residents gathering to watch trains chug by from their windows on the world. One night the trains fail to appear. Then the hospital staff vanishes, leaving the residents to fend for themselves.
  The normally isolated hospital becomes a flash point in the Russian-Chechen conflict, violently disturbing the patients’ sense of serenity. Janna’s accordion playing calms her friends’ nerves when the occasional shell lands nearby.
  Chechen soldiers turn the hospital into a temporary headquarters, and Janna strikes up a misunderstood romance with one of them. That bond lets us see Miss Vysotsky in wedding finery as she accepts blessings from her fellow patients, all cloyingly portrayed.
  What follows is often compelling, although given the patients’ mental states, little character development is to be expected. The more important progression involves the soldiers, who come to appreciate the patients’ kind hearts and unfettered humanity.
  Cinematographer Sergei Kozlov conjures dilapidated beauty from dismal surroundings. His images routinely are drained of their vibrant colors, leaving the screen stained by shades of gray.
  Mr. Adams is hardly a music-world icon, and his selection should have raised eyebrows. Instead, he proves sweetly ironic, as does his song “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?”
  “House of Fools” won’t make us think differently of the mentally ill, or Mr. Adams’ songbook, for that matter. It does provide a fresh perspective on the horrors of war and the bonds both sides in any conflict inevitably share.
  
  **1/2
  TITLE: “House of Fools” (“Dom Durakov”)
  RATING: R (Partial nudity, numerous gunfire exchanges and explosions, coarse language)
  CREDITS: Written and directed by Andrei Konchalovsky. Cinematography by Sergei Kozlov. Russian with English subtitles
  RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes
  MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
  

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