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San Jose Mercury News
May 15, 2003
'Fools' turns world of war inside out;
By Glenn Lovell; Mercury News

In the '70s, with the United States mired in Vietnam, rebellion and non-conformity seemed for some the only sane response. The hit of the day: Milos Forman's ''One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.''

Now, with U.S. forces in Iraq and international crises an almost daily occurrence, the inmates are again running the asylum, this time in Andrei Konchalovsky's ''House of Fools'' (opening Friday), set during the Chechen war of 1996.

The difference: People are dying to get into a psychiatric hospital, rather than escape over its walls.

''Yes, it's 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,' but in a different century,'' confirms the Russian writer-director, in Los Angeles for a round of interviews. ''Forman's heroes dream to run away, to get free. In the 21st century, people want to come in and hide. It's like the world inverted.''

The expansive Konchalovsky pauses, considers this, then lets out with a booming laugh. ''The madhouse is outside the walls, let's put it that way.''

A true citizen of the world who commutes between homes in Moscow and London, where he edits his films, Konchalovsky, 65, hasn't been heard from much lately. His last film to receive major release was ''The Inner Circle'' (1991), about Stalin's film projectionist. Before that, he worked in Hollywood on the good (''Runaway Train''), the sad (''Shy People'') and the ludicrous (''Tango & Cash,'' a truly awful prison-break movie with Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell).

''That was my largest budget -- $60 million,'' the director recalls. ''I can't say the title (''Tango & Cash'') without laughing.''

His countrymen in the Soviet Union were less amused.

''All my American films were attacked by Russian critics when they were released in Russia,'' he recalls. ''They said, 'This is by the man who lives on the Potomac.' I never lived on the Potomac. I lived on the Hudson and Los Angeles rivers.''

Now, however, in the new Russia, Konchalovsky and capitalistic excess can peacefully co-exist. Indeed, he's embraced as a Hollywood big shot.

''Times change,'' he says. ''Now they say, 'No, he did some good films there.' Not surprising. Russians, like the rest of the world, enjoy Hollywood films much more than their own films. It's the same in India or wherever. The whole world prefers Hollywood films. It's normal.''

Though he continues to work in Russia and Eastern Europe (he just shot a cable version of ''The Lion in Winter'' with Glenn Close in Hungary), Konchalovsky bankrolls his films in France, adding to the impression that the Russian film industry has fallen on very hard times.

''Russia does not have a film industry -- Russia has film art,'' the director corrects. ''Russian filmmakers basically struggle to get financed. It's not like in Hollywood, where industry and art co-exist. We're trying to make our films but not meeting with big success.''

With the advent of DVD, digital technology and the Information superhighway, things are beginning to change.

''There are new possibilities, and some islands of filmmaking that have found relative freedom. Remember, big money never gives you big freedom, especially in art.''

Which brings us back to ''House of Fools,'' a low-budget endeavor co-starring the director's young wife, Julia Vysotsky, as an asylum patient whose fantasy world revolves around a dreamy pop star (Bryan Adams in a role that was originally offered to Sting). When the doors swing open, the inmates get as far as the courtyard.

''In medieval times, they had a term for the girl's complaint -- 'Jesus's Bride,' '' explains the director. ''These girls were virgins dreaming of their prince, dreaming he was Jesus. Now Jesus is played by a pop star.''

With the world's current problems, ''House of Fools'' (also translated as ''Mad House'') couldn't be timelier.

''You don't think about how timely it is or isn't,'' Konchalovsky says. ''I did this film not because of the war in Chechnya. I did this film because of war itself. It could have been in Kosovo or Africa. What is important to me is that these people, when free to run away, stay and try to organize some human life.''

And even the Chechen rebels come off as sympathetic, which must have angered Russian censors.

''Some functionaries in Russia were nervous that these characters were not so bad,'' the director acknowledges. ''In Russia, Chechens are playing the role Indians once played in Hollywood movies: They're people on horses shooting arrows into good missionaries. I just wanted to remind them that not every Chechen is a terrorist.''

When it's suggested that his film is more than a little reminiscent of Philippe De Broca's 1966 art-house hit ''King of Hearts,'' wherein a British soldier takes refuge in an asylum, Konchalovsky, who describes himself as a big De Broca fan, plays dumb.

''I never saw it,'' he insists. ''My philosophy toward war comes from Tolstoy's 'War and Peace': War is not about victory, war is about death. . . . I am saying that everyone has the right to be wrong, that pain is always pain.''


Rated: R (nudity, violence)

Cast: Julia Vysotsky, Evgeni Mironov, Bryan Adams

Writer-director: Andrei Konchalovsky

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

In Russian with English subtitles

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