Dir: Fridrik Thor Fridriksson. Ice-Nor-Swe-Ger-Den. 2000. 95mins.

Prod co: Icelandic Film Corp with the support of the Icelandic Film Fund. Co-prods: Filmhuset (Norway), Peter Rommel Film Productions, SDF, Arte and ORD German, SVT Sweden, Zentropa Productions Copenhagen. Int'l sales: Trust Film Sales, tel: (45) 3686 8788. Prod: Fridrik Thor Fridriksson. Scr: Eimar Mar Gudmundsson from his novel. DoP: Harald Paulgaard. Prod des: Arni Pall Johannsson. Eds: Sigvaldi Karason, Skule Eriksen. Mus: Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson. Sound des: Kjartan Kjartansson. Main cast: Ingvar Sigurdsson, Baltasar Kormakur, Hilmir Snaer Gudnason, Bjorn Jorundur Fridbjornsson, Margaret Helga Johanssdottir.

Angels Of The Universe is the darkest film to date by Iceland's best-known director, Fridrik Thor Fridriksson. Adapted by Einar Mar Gudmundsson from his award-winning novel, it tells the tragic story of his late brother, painfully exploring the farther reaches of madness and self-destruction. It is the fourth co-operation between the writer and the director which may explain why, instead of going for a Nordic version of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Fridriksson prefers to keep his famously sardonic sense of humour in rein most of the time. He chooses an intimate approach that manages to be grim and tender, sombre and poetic at the same time, although his typical surrealistic imagery and caricature sketches, are not altogether absent.

Paul (Sigurdsson) loses his grip on reality when his girlfriend is easily persuaded to drop him by her wealthy parents who do not appreciate the boy's proletarian background. Unable to control his temper or his moods, his conduct becomes more erratic, and soon he is diagnosed as schizophrenic. He is placed in a mental institution, which does not pretend to cure him, just to separate him from the rest of society and minimalise the damage he might wreak around him.

Most of the film takes place within the walls of this institution, focusing not only on Paul but on several other inmates. Oli claims he is the real author of all the Beatles songs, Viktor has trouble deciding whether he prefers to be Shakespeare or Hitler and Peter is a compulsive drug user. Confused, insecure, manic-depressive, sometimes conscious of their condition, sometimes completely oblivious, they alternate between rare high spirits and sheer despair. In what is probably the film's happiest scene, Viktor invites his three friends to join him for dinner in the most expensive restaurant in town. After having thoroughly enjoyed every dish, sampled all the wines and liquors and smoked a few Havanas to boot, he calls the maitre d' and suggests to bring in the police, for they are penniless, irresponsible lunatics who obviously can't pay.

Fridriksson's control over the constant changes in mood is quite remarkable. He refrains from exploring or offering easy medical definitions or social interpretations for the state of his protagonists, insisting on a personal story rather than a universal metaphor. A solid cast and efficient use of soundtrack - particularly important given Paul's musical tendencies - are a great help, and Harald Paulgaard's camerawork is superior. Already a festival favourite since first unveiled in Gothenburg, earlier this year, Fridriksson's film may have a better-than-average chance to penetrate the art circuit as well. In Iceland, Angels has become one of the most successful films ever, grossing more than $1m.