Dir. Andrei Konchalovsky. Russia-France. 2002. 104mins.

Released from the strict disciplines of Hollywood film making, to which he adhered during his Western exile, veteran Andrei Konchalovsky, now firmly re-established back in Moscow, lets his hair down and plunges into a very personal exploration of the Russian experience with House Of Fools. Awarded the Grand Jury Prize in Venice, this metaphor, which condenses the image of the entire country in an understaffed, under-equipped and over-populated insane asylum on the border between Russia and Chechnya, takes on a special resonance after the recent takeover of a Moscow theatre by Chechen terrorists. However, the delivery may be a little too sophisticated to be exploited for its purely newsworthy value. Unlike Konchalovsky's work in the West, House Of Fools is addressed to restricted audiences: as such it is a must for any thematic film programme and a evident choice for art houses but a tough nut for general distribution. Paramount Classics has rights for North America, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Latin American: the film opens in Russia itself on Dec 6.

The setting is an authentic asylum, its patients playing most of the secondary parts, which allows Konchalovsky a vast margin for improvisation and flights into pure poetical fancy. Indeed, more than an actual story, the events accumulated on screen represent a state of mind: Konchalovsky's own take on Russia today.

The main character, Janna (Julia Vysotsky, the director's wife, in a splendid performance) is a young naïve woman who feverishly expects her idol, Canadian balladeer Bryan Adams (in a guest cameo), to take her into the perfect Western paradise where he surely resides. Her only consolation is the accordion on which she fiercely applies herself, often with an appeasing effect on the other inmates.

One day the entire medical staff disappears, and left to the own wiles, this bunch of helpless, lost souls, have to organise their own existence inside the institution. Then a Chechen rebel unit, arrives, turns the place upside down. For her part Janna is almost ready to forget Adams and marry a macho rebel, Ahmad (Islamov). Then the Russian army strikes back in an appallingly realistic dance macabre, the Chechens retreat and the inmates' world is again turned upside down. who fights whom and for what purpose, neither Janna nor any of the other inmates begin to understand. Amid the confusion it transpires that the two opposing commanders fought not so long ago together against a common enemy in Afghanistan.

House Of Fools visual style bears the imprints of Fellini and Kusturica, while Edward Artemiev's music often echoes Nino Rotta and the basic plot suggests such cult films as Philippe de Broca's King Of Hearts. However, it is a profoundly Russian piece not only because of the aptly applied allegories, but also because of its melancholy, its pessimism, its choice of fools as the personification of victimised innocence and its mystical longing for dreams that are beyond reach now or at any time in the foreseeable future. The camera travels in long, handheld moves, roaming through the rundown madhouse and catching the inmates at their most vulnerable.

Far removed from the blunt statements made by two of the more successful Russian films of last year dealing with the Chechen uprising, Balabanov's War and Lounguine's Tycoon, Konchalovsky's picture refrains from dispensing easy verdicts, blends reality (a similar hospital fell into Chechen hands in 1996) and poetical license, blurs the border between normal and abnormal, and makes sure that every detail in it refers not only to the plot, such as it is, but also to Russia past and present.

Prod co: Persona, Hachette Premiere, Bac Films
Int'l sales:
Roissy Films
Konchalovsky, Felix Kleiman
Sergei Kozlov
Prod des:
Lubov Skorina
Olga Grinshpun
Edward Artemiev
Main cast:
Julia Vysotsky, Evgeni Mironov, Sultan Islamov, Stanislas Varkki, Elena Fomina, Marina Politseimako, Rasmi Djabrailov, Vladimir Fedorov