House of Fools
Length: 108 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio: DD 5.1 Russian and Chechen
SRP: Under $29.99 USD
House of Fools is a compelling film about a psychiatric hospital caught in a war zone during a conflict between Russian and Chechen troops in 1996. Supposedly a true story, I suspect that the truth ends with the facts above, and that the personal stories within are pure fiction. Still, all that doesn’t matter, as this is a film that grabs you and won’t let go.
House of Fools, directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, opens with scenes reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, among other films of that ilk. We start in the hospital. The patients are gathered at the window, waiting to see the nightly train pass by. Janna (Julia Vysotsky), a patient, plays the accordion, and thinks that the American singer Bryan Adams is her fiancé. While we see things through Janna’s eyes, the picture takes on a warm quality, and the train is a decorated passenger train with Bryan Adams singing to the passengers, who are largely the patients. We find out later that, in reality, the train is freighting Russian tanks. Many other characters fill in the background, and the scenes are generally chaotic. The hospital has a very small staff, and they have difficulty handling their charges.
The arrival of Chechen rebels takes this film into unexplored territory. Bringing gun fighting into the asylum, there are truly edge-of-your-seat moments when the patients, oblivious to any danger, wander into extremely dangerous battlegrounds. One scene shows an oblivious Janna as a helicopter crashes and explodes close by. Still, rather than view the rebels as dangerous outsiders, we see them more as confused and tired - and it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between soldier and patient.
The nurse quits, and the doctor leaves to procure a bus to evacuate the patients, leaving them at the mercy of the soldiers around them. While their world is literally crumbling, the patients take over the asylum, and seem to be in more control than the soldiers. There is a wonderfully touching and yet uncomfortable sequence involving one of the soldiers and Janna, which runs as a thread through the second and third acts of the film.
This is a rare case of a story about war, which expressly refuses to take sides in the conflict. The whole focus is on the innocents, patients and soldiers alike, who are forced to do their government’s bidding. It’s a wonderful film, both touching and unnerving. It avoids political statements, but searches out personal ones.
House of Fools was the winner of the Jury Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival, and it was the official Russian selection for Academy Award consideration.
House of Fools is full of fast, handheld camera work. It looks as though it was shot on mixed media. Most scenes are gray and grainy with a cold pale palette, and some are warm and soft. The pacing is frenetic. I point this out so as not to denigrate the transfer, as I’m sure it’s supposed to look as it is presented on DVD. The picture is bright, with solid blacks and good shadow detail. I believe it to be a good representation of the original theatrical presentation.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, in Russian and Chechen with English subtitles. There is no English soundtrack. The soundstage is completely enveloping, and frequency response is strong and wide. Surrounds are used to good effect during battle scenes, and the LFE delivers well during these scenes as well.
There are no extra features on this disc.
This is a wonderful film, shot in an almost documentary style, and is well represented on this DVD from Paramount.