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House of Fools

Safe asylum

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Once you've gathered some metaphors to stand on, the walls that separate the insides of mental institutions from the supposedly sane outside world stop looking so high. Or so the movies often tell us. Andrei Konchalovsky's potent House of Fools takes that conceit more literally than most. It's set at an asylum in the midst of Chechnya's war with Russia. Chechen soldiers take over the facility after the staff flees the shabby hospital, leaving the inmates behind.

Writer and director Konchalovsky's heroine is Janna (Julia Vysotsky), an adorable young Chechen woman with a speech impediment who nightly joins her fellow patients at a window to watch a speeding train cross a trestle (the small color TV in the dingy common room being insufficient entertainment). Janna's experience, however, is unique. She imagines that on board the train is the pop singer Bryan Adams, whom she further believes is her fiancé.

Though Janna also plays accordion and leads the asylum's exercise class, her main obsession is waiting for Mr. Cuts Like A Knife to come spirit her off. But her fidelity is tested when a strapping Chechen soldier proposes marriage. Innocent Janna doesn't know he's mocking her to amuse his buddies, but the proposal ironically anchors Konchalovsky's story, which meditates equally on the folly of war and the power of love.

Over the opening credits, before the initial image, House of Fools begins first ominously, with the far-off baying of dogs, then hauntingly, with a Muslim call to prayer, sung by someone who turns out to be one of the inmates. Both emotional strains wind through the film, evoked in both the mundanely harsh anxieties and fleeting pleasures of asylum life, and the sudden brutalities and long, lazy pauses in the fighting between the Muslim Chechen rebels and the Russian army.

Though he was inspired by a news report about a clinic full of abandoned psychiatric patients near the Chechen border, Konchalovsky also adds another approach: escapist fantasy. Early in the film, whenever Janna plays the accordion, the director shows us what she imagines, such as a bunch of squabbling inmates and asylum staff suddenly breaking into beatified folk dance. Conversely, Konchalovsky scores the film's more chaotic scenes with mad hurdy-gurdy music; poignantly, the only scene in which the accordion makes any real difference is when a Chechen captain snatches it from Janna and plays it to quell a scuffle. Janna's daydreams about Adams are also set to music, with the singer appearing in scenes that seem extracted from some carnivalesque music video, and always singing his treacly, flamenco-inflected ballad "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman," which sounds a little like "Que Sera, Sera."

Adams' presence is amusing, especially at first -- it's funny that he's there, on screen, much funnier than if Janna simply had his posters on the wall. Any bland Western male pop singer could have filled the role, counterpointing the jagged, unsettling story with seconds of implicit North American wealth, privilege and romantic ease. But Konchalovsky isn't making fun of anyone: Janna's visions of Adams are both her sustaining delusion and a study in the inevitable pathos of the global village.

The Russian-born Konchalovsky -- his father, a poet, wrote the lyrics to the Soviet national anthem -- made films in his homeland in the '60s and '70s; his varied Hollywood productions have included Runaway Train, Shy People and Tango & Cash. I haven't seen anything else he's done, but in House of Fools -- his first theatrical movie in several years -- he's hitting on all cylinders.

With cinematographer Sergei Kozlov, Konchalovsky uses every square inch of the frame, and there's hardly a second without an interesting composition or movement, amplifying the literally mad energy of the setting as well as its plangent silences. There's an immediacy to the camera-work; there's also an intriguing contrast between the day-lit scenes, with their distressed feel and washed-out colors, and the intense, sharply photographed nighttime passages.

Konchalovsky's writing leans toward the symbolically freighted -- Janna gives a green apple to an elderly inmate who seems to think he's God -- and his dialogue toward the metaphorical. "Even iron locomotives get tired sometimes," says the asylum's sanguine head doctor to his charges, as he might to children, explaining why there'll be no train tonight (or maybe why the Soviet empire doesn't exist any more).

The inmates, meanwhile, are a diverse lot. There's Janna's obsessive-compulsive roommate and her boyfriend, a sportive dwarf; Vika, a disgruntled older woman who spouts Chechen nationalist rhetoric and denounces the younger generation; and quiet but temperamental Ali, who spends his days alone in his room, writing poems he keeps in a backpack he never removes, but who also asserts leadership at moments of crisis. The performances have a stubborn life of their own, Konchalovsky casting the sort of actors who make you wonder what they're thinking even when they're just sitting there. Vysotsky, the star, is effective in a different way. As Janna, her transparent and wholly credible naiveté helps make Konchalovsky's satirical point: In a world gone insane with war, the sanest place to hide just might be a mental hospital. In Chechen and Russian, with subtitles.

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