The spirit of Fellini hovers over Train of Life, the third so-called Holocaust comedy to come down the pike. Far superior to either Life Is Beautiful or Jakob the Liar, the French-language production has a silliness and a buffoonish humor reminiscent of Amarcord and Fellini's Roma, yet somehow it feels neither excessive nor offensive. It's no surprise to learn that the picture won the Donotello -- the Italian Oscar -- for Best Foreign Language film. (It also picked up the Audience Award at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival.)
Written and directed by Radu Mihaileanu, who fled his native Romania during the repressive Ceausescu regime and eventually made his way to France, the film is set in a Jewish shtetl in Eastern Europe during the winter of 1941. With clear echoes of both Shakespeare and Fiddler on the Roof, the film opens with the village fool, Shlomo (Lionel Abelanski), warning the Wise Men (the rabbis) that the Nazis will soon be entering their town. While the rabbis debate what to do, Shlomo concocts a fantastic plan: The village will fake its own deportation, camouflaging a train to look like a German transport headed for the concentration camps. In reality, the train will be bound for freedom.
The entire village pitches in: painting and refurbishing the boxcars, sewing swastikas on handmade uniforms, forging documents, and stockpiling food for the journey. Those who know a little German are pressed into playing Nazi soldiers; Mordechai, the wood merchant (Rufus), reluctantly accepts the role of the Nazi commander. He and the other "Germans" are viewed with increasing hostility by the rest of the villagers, who are relegated to playing, essentially, themselves. Once the train is en route, tensions rise even higher, and a faction of deportees, led by the head rabbi's son, stages a revolt against their captors. The greatest dangers, however, remain external. As the ghost train rattles through the Eastern European countryside, searching for a safe route to freedom, the real Germans learn of the elaborate hoax and set out to stop the train. Meanwhile, antifascist partisans are attempting to blow up the train, thinking it a bona fide transport.
Like Life Is Beautiful before it, Train of Life is intended as a fable about hope and the human spirit. Its comic-serious tone and interweaving of humor, passion, and unspoken but inevitable tragedy recall the short stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, as well as the fanciful, dreamlike paintings of Marc Chagall, the noted Russian-Jewish painter. Overall, the film has a faintly theatrical feel -- the shtetl looks as though it's on a studio back lot -- and with its lively, Gypsy-tinged klezmer score, the work of noted Balkan-composer Goran Bregovic, the movie more than once suggests a production of Fiddler on the Roof.
Shlomo, the classic Shakespearean fool who sees the truth that others cannot or will not see, is in many ways the soul of the film. Played splendidly by Abelanski, he is at once naive and wise, a dreamer cursed with second sight. Equally good is Rufus as Mordechai. Another actor little known outside Europe, he looks a lot like Farmer Hogett in Babe and brings a sympathetic spirit and humor to the role.
The portrait of the townspeople is rooted in the tradition of Yiddish humor, which presents characters with all their faults and foibles. Walking a fine line between amusing and irritating, the villagers are at once selfish and warmhearted, petty and generous, obtuse and well-meaning. That they don't veer into the realm of totally annoying is amazing, a testament to the overall mood and tone that Mihaileanu is able to establish and maintain. The underlying sense of vanity that marred Life Is Beautiful is thankfully absent here, as is the saccharine hokiness of Jakob the Liar. Instead, Mihaileanu presents a world in which optimism and fantasy coexist with grim reality. It isn't an easy balance to achieve. And even though we know how it will end -- how it did end for Europe's Jews and millions of others caught in Hitler's path -- the viewer is left with a sense of hope.
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