Angels of the Universe (2000) Directed by Fridrik Thór Fridriksson

London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts has been trying to address the need to find out what madness truly leads to with its Reel Madness mini-festival (19-22 June). Over a series of films – ranging from documentaries to recent fictions and obscure Bergmans and Hustons from the archive – the festival attempted to show the many faces of mental disorder, and the ways in which the movies can try and avoid Hollywood cliché, where madness is always the realm of the idiot savant, from Minnelli’s The Agony and the Ecstasy to Howard’s A Beautiful Mind.

None of the films shown at the festival will make the public impact of those two. No-one will win Oscars, no-one will make millions, but the importance of the gesture of staging such an event should not go unnoticed. Setting the films amongst a panel discussions on the social and political role of filming mental illness, Reel Madness is a reminder that film has a representational role to play, joining in the act of giving voice to the unheard and the excluded, offering the chance to dissolve the misunderstandings and unease which still haunt those disorders which will afflict half the population at some time in their lives.

But it’s not an easy task, and the festival’s strongest fiction film Fridrik Thór Fridriksson’s Angels of the Universe (2000) showed all the reasons why. An Icelandic artist, Paul (Ingvar E Sigurdsson), a poet, a painter, and a mumbling thinker, falls apart at the end of a doomed relationship and his anxious parents place him in a psychiatric hospital. Sometimes he gets better, sometimes he gets worse again – but never does he find a way out of psychosis, until at the end he finds the suicide’s path and throws himself from the top of a towerblock, to live on only in the minds of his grieving parents. Set in a small town outpost in the smoke and rock of Iceland, Angels of the Universe finds a way of addressing madness that crowds its canvas with clichés, only to subvert them with some compelling ideas about the way we approach schizophrenia and psychosis.

We all think we know what mad people are like, and nothing in the main body of the film fights against those assumptions – it revels in them, piling up every crass expectation of what a psychiatric hospital might be like. Paul paces and grips at his tormented head, holding on for dear life as he falls rapidly apart. It’s no surprise. Inside the hospital he becomes friends with a man who thinks he’s Hitler, a tortured academic genius and a guy who sends Hey Jude telepathically back into history into Paul McCartney’s willing mind. It’s funny, but it’s daft, and what saves it from the vain and patronising gestures of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the dead zones around its edges that speak of something else altogether.

Critic Manny Farber talks about something called Negative Space – incidental moments of no bearing on the movement of story which open up a discreet but binding disturbance in the fabric of films. Such little non-incidents spread across Angels of the Universe and become its secret subject. Paul and his parents go for a drive, an attempt at a normal family outing. The mother notices a house painted a funny colour, the father agrees and Paul looks on and says nothing. A little later, Paul goes for another drive with his closest friend Rögnwald, a newly qualified dentist with all the trappings of a normal life. Paul says Rögnwald could never be mad, and his friend says nothing – a little later we find out he’s killed himself. In those moments of harmless daily movement a space is cleared amongst all the trappings of expected gesture that shows where madness really lies – not in the lonely flailings of a person breaking apart, or in the hospitals where people are classified and sedated, but in the failures of communication that most of the world never notice but which some people cannot take, and in the dull routines which slowly break families, friendships and societies apart.

In the everyday world everyone encounters things which can’t be expressed, and sometimes that silence forces the fragile to collapse. In showing those moments, Angels of the Universes achieves the best that the Reel Madness festival could hope for: to show how film can be a record not only of the spectacular, but of the minor absences which take on a life-and-death imperative. Madness is a glimpse into a void where negative spaces are exactly those things which everybody goes through – a conversation, a Sunday afternoon drive – and which, sometimes, can be the most powerful openings to chaos. It’s then that you really know what a madman looks like, because its obvious: a madman looks just like you.