Monday, February 14, 2022

272. Russian director Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s fifteenth feature film “Dom Durakov” (House of Fools) (2002), based on his original screenplay: An assessment of a film trashed soon after its release by most critics

A majority of film critics and viewers tend to dismiss Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s films in their initial assessments, especially in recent decades. Why is that? To answer that question, one needs to know some key facts about Konchalovsky and the three phases of his career.

Who is Konchalovsky?

Few know or recall that Konchalovsky was partly responsible for the early masterpieces of Andrei Tarkovsky—The Steamroller and The Violin; Ivan’s Childhood; and Andrei Rublyev. As a screenplay-writer, Konchalovsky collaborated with Tarkovsky (his film school classmate) as a co-scriptwriter on these films as well as for other directors’ films: Shaken Ajmanov’s The End of the Ataman (1971) and Tolomush Okeev’s The Fierce One (1974). He also contributed, as a screenplay-writer, to his half-brother Nikita Mikhalkov’s film A Slave of Love (1976). Many of these films dealt with children and childhood. This was the specifically highlighted in his own debut film as a director and co-scriptwriter, The First Teacher (1965), a film that won the best actress award at the Venice film festival. Then he directed Siberiade (1979), which won the Cannes Grand Prize of the Jury (essentially, the second-best film in competition at that event in 1979). These accomplishments mark his first phase evolving from an important screenplay-writer into a notable film director, winning international recognition at major film festivals.

Then his second phase begins when he moves to Hollywood directing a string of  impressive films in USA: Maria’s Lovers (1984), with his screenplay, nominated for the Venice Golden Lion; Runaway Train (1985), based on a re-worked screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, winner of the best actor Golden Globe, and nominated for the Cannes Golden Palm and three Oscars; Duet for One (1986), based on his co-scripted screenplay and nominated for a Golden Globe; Shy People (1987), based on his original story and screenplay, winner of the best actress award at Cannes, and nominated for the Golden Palm at that festival; and Homer and Eddie (1989) winner of the Golden Seashell award for the best film at the San Sebastian film festival in Spain. This was followed by a critical and commercial disaster called Tango and Cash, made the same year. It was a disaster primarily due to the studio’s (and possibly actor Sylvester Stallone’s) interference with the director’s plans at every stage triggering the exasperated director’s return to Russia. This second phase re-emphasized Konchalovsky’s talents as a director (when there was no studio interference), a screenplay-writer (in three films in this phase) and, more importantly, as a director who could extract award-winning performances from his actors.

Then comes his third phase when he returns to Russia and films The Inner Circle (1991), with his screenplay, and wins a nomination for the Golden Bear at Berlin; Ryaba, My Chicken (1994) with his original screenplay, and wins a nomination for the Golden Palm at Cannes that year; and follows those two films by directing  House of Fools  (2002) this time again with his original screenplay, which gets nominated  for the Golden Lion at Venice, winning the Grand Special Jury Prize and the UNICEF award. Konchalovsky followed these three major nominations at the big three festivals with another set of three top-notch films that have actually won him better and more significant laurels: The Postman’s White Nights (2014), Paradise (2016), and Dear Comrades (2020).  The first two were winners of the Silver Lion for the Best Director and the third a winner of Jury’s Special Prize all at the Venice film festival, with all the three screenplays co-scripted by Konchalovsky and his new collaborator, Elena Kiseleva.

The third phase, thus, marks the amazing contributions of Konchalovsky as director and screenplay-writer while collaborating on many films with his actress wife Vysostkaya and his new found co-scriptwriter Kiseleva—a wonderful, winning combination.  

What is most exciting is that Konchalovsky is currently working on rebuilding afresh the Tarkovsky film The First Day, destroyed in 1979 by the Russian Censors, which was based on the script written by Konchalovsky. Both Konchalovsky and Tarkovsky have a close affinity with the Russian Orthodox Church and evidently Tarkovsky’s last film project in the USSR, The First Day, upset the atheist doctrines of USSR in 1979, and contributed in part to the destruction of the completed footage of the film project. That ill-fated Tarkovsky-Konchalovsky film project had followed Konchalovsky’s collaboration on Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublyev. The destruction of that Tarkovsky film resulted in the self-exile of the director. The timing of the destruction of the film coincides with the year Siberiade was made--the last film of Konchalovsky in the first phase, before he makes films in USA instead of his homeland. 

The numerous nominations and accolades of Konchalovsky over the decades at the big three film festivals of the world—Cannes, Venice and Berlin--are rare feathers in the cap for any film director from any country. Thus, it is rather odd when an awarded work such as House of Fools is hastily dismissed by many..

Assessment of House of Fools

“Why is man happy when he kills another? What is there to be happy about?"—Leo Tolstoy, recalled by a Russian army officer (played by a famous Russian actor, Evginiy Mironov) in the film

Several critics, who assessed this work of Konchalovsky, compared House of Fools with Milos Forman’s famous US film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and found the Konchalovsky film to be a disjointed and unimpressive work. Yet the only common factor between the two films is that both revolve around inmates of a mental asylum.

Yulia Vysotskaya plays an asylum inmate, Zhanna,
who adores Bryan Adams, and dreams that he drives the train
that crosses the bridge each evening, near the asylum

There are major differences between the two films. Forman’s film is an adaptation of novel by Ken Kesey about a criminal who hides in a mental asylum.  Konchalovsky’s film is based on real events and the screenplay is original.

House of Fools is a film on good humans with mental problems. These patients are incarcerated in a mental asylum, run by an efficient doctor, who is dedicated to the well-being of his patients and caring. On the not-so-obvious side--it is based on true incidents in Chechnya (Russia) during the Second Chechen War of 1999-2000. For those unfamiliar with Chechnya, it is a constituent republic of Russia with a predominant Muslim population. Russians predominantly belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. Konchalovsky has proven his Russian orthodox credentials in all his cinematic works.

In this film, the inmates of the asylum include patients of both faiths living in harmony. Outside the asylum, there is war (between the Muslim Chechens and the Christian Russians). Konchalovsky's script underscores the camaraderie between the warring factions when they fought side by side in Afghanistan saving each others lives. During the Chechen war, some soldiers of both sides recall that they were once friends and show respect for each other.

When the asylum is bombed by the Russians, many of the inmates “cross” themselves out of fear of impending death--indicating the majority of the inmates are Christian. Ahmed, a Muslim Chechen and a pacifist, incarcerates himself with this motley group of inmates as he finds safety, anonymity, and friendship among the "crazies" who accept him as one of their own.

Zhanna assumes the actor-turned-Chechen soldier, Ahmed
(Sultan Islamov), intends to marry and dresses in white attire,
contributed by various inmates for the bride-to-be 

During the war, many of the support staff flee to save their lives. The good doctor, who alone has to care for some twenty-odd patients, is worried for the safety of his patients and goes out of the hospital to find a bus to transport the inmates to a safer zone, Significantly, even then, they do not wish to leave the hospital, quite unlike the Milos Forman’s film and Ken Kesey’s novel, where troublemaking patients are not sensitively cared for but lobotomized.  In Konchalovsky’s film, the doctor in charge of the hospital listens to and cares for his wards, in contrast to the Hollywood film. House of Fools is a humanist film where a Chechen ultimately seeks the solace of the asylum compared to the world outside. Most importantly, the film is secular, where the doctor and his patients help and love one another irrespective of their religions. This is where House of Fools is considerably different from the Forman film.

Another facet of the film that will surprise many viewers is that many of the patients in the mental hospital are real mental patients who were working alongside professional actors. Not many directors would attempt such a feat; Konchalovsky did it, with elan.

The caring doctor (Vladas Bagdonas) who returns after his
unsuccessful trip to get a bus to evacuate the asylum patients,
is worried that the Chechen soldiers have harmed the innocent Zhanna

The participation of rock singer Bryan Adams as an actor and singer in the film is Konchalovsky's masterstroke along with the soothing words of the song Have you ever really loved a woman? sung by the singer.  The crash of a helicopter and it bursting into flames within the hospital’s grounds during the war show the intensity of the conflict while the innocent Zhanna plays her accordion oblivious of the gangers with a a few feet of her.

Other important trivia, the lead actress Yulia Vysotskaya is the director's wife of over 20 years. Her acting capability is showcased in a wide variety of roles she has subsequently played in her husband's films--most importantly in Paradise and Dear Comrades.

The film is further strengthened on the aural front beyond Bryan Adams by the music of composer Eduard Artemyev. Artemyev's contribution is often bypassed by the fans of Tarkovsky (in Solaris, Stalker, Mirror), of Konchalovsky (in Siberiade, The Inner Circle, Homer and Eddie),of  Mikhalkov (in The Barber of Siberia, A Few Days in the Life of I. I. Oblomov), etc.

The crux of the film lies in the quotation of Tolstoy "Why is man happy when he kills another? What is there to be happy about?" recalled by a Russian army officer (played by a famous Russian actor, Evginiy Mironov,) in the film towards the end.

The Chechen soldier Ahmed acts as if he has fallen for
the accordion-playing Zhanna and blurts out that he will
 marry her, little realizing the consequences 


When Konchalovsky writes his own original screenplays (as opposed to when he is adapting an existing written work) few aspects emerge: his firm Christian roots, his wide reading, and his love for Russia. While each tale could be set in different locations--a remote marshy forest in USA (as in Shy People), a mental asylum (as in House of Fools), or a remote village in Russia (as in The Postman’s White Nights)--step back from the obvious tale and you will spot a metaphor that is critical of the current state of  the director's homeland.  Those are his unique strengths.


P.S.  House of Fools won the Grand Special Jury Prize and the UNICEF award at the Venice film Festival in 2002. Konchalovsky’s films Runaway Train, Shy People, The Postman’s White Nights, and Paradise, have been reviewed on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in this post-script to access each of the reviews.) Konchalovsky is one of the author's top 15 active filmmakers.