"Life Is Beautiful" seems to have made the world safe for comic dramas set during the Holocaust; already this year, we've had Robin Williams giving hope to his Polish neighbors by faking radio broadcasts in "Jakob the Liar." And now comes "Train of Life," in which residents of an Eastern European shtetl buy a train so they can deport themselves all the way to freedom.
But this is not a cinematic vein that cries out for greater exploitation. Perhaps more than anything, both "Jakob" and now "Train" have reinforced what a singular pleasure "Life Is Beautiful" was.
Our tour guide for this tale is town fool Schlomo (Lionel Abelanski), who relates in flashback how the village elders, hearing that the Nazis had begun ridding nearby towns of their Jewish inhabitants, met to find a solution for their plight. It's Schlomo who comes up with the idea of faking their deportation. Brilliant, the local rabbi (Clement Harari) exclaims: We'll get a train, disguise some of our men as Nazis (after voice lessons, so they'll lose the Yiddish accents) and pretend like we're heading for a prison camp, when in reality we're heading for the Russian border.
And so the journey begins. Naturally, none of the men wants to play a Nazi, but the town elders choose several, including Mordechai (Rufus), who's tapped to be their leader. They also find a guy who once worked at a train station and make him the engineer (fortunately, he pilfered a how-to manual from his job) and get the local chess champion to map out their route, figuring he'll be adept at moving them from Point A to Point B without the real Nazis finding out.
Complicating matters is Yossi (Michael Muller), who turns his rejection by the beautiful Esther (Agathe de la Fontaine) into a revolutionary call to arms; he becomes a Communist, espousing Marxist-Leninist doctrine, forming his own little soviet, developing a swelled head and basically just being a pain.
"Life Is Beautiful" succeeded not just because of Roberto Benigni's comic sensibilities, but also because he had the brilliant idea of filtering the concentration camp experience through the eyes of a child, who saw everything as just an elaborate game of hide-and-seek. But here, writer-director Radu Mihaileanu has an entire village of adults treating war like a game, and the result is nowhere near as charming; what evolves is some weird cross between "Hogan's Heroes" and "Lord of the Flies." Even some wonderful comic moments -- including Mordechai's explanation to the real Nazis that his train is not on their schedule because it's full of especially dangerous Jewish Communists -- aren't enough to validate such an uneasy mix.
'Train of Life'
Directed by Radu Mihaileanu
Starring Lionel Abelanski, Rufus, Clement Harari and Agathe de la Fontaine
Released by Paramount Classics
Rated R (some sexuality and nudity)
Running time 103 minutes
Sun score: **1/2