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(1999) (Lionel Abelanski, Rufus) (R)

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Comedy/Drama (Subtitled): Facing the approach of Nazi forces, the inhabitants of a small Jewish village decide to fake their own deportment, complete with some of their own playing German officers, and ride the rails to freedom.
It's the summer of 1941 and the Nazis are depleting entire villages of Jews in eastern Europe. Upon learning this, Shlomo (LIONEL ABELANSKI), the inhabitant of one such village, races home to inform the village's "wise men," including the local rabbi (CLEMENT HARARI) and accountant, Yankele (BRUNO ABRAHAM-KREMER), of such atrocities.

Concerned about how to react to such news and what step they should next take, Shlomo, known as the village idiot, suggests that they deport themselves from the town before the Germans do, acting as if they're headed for a concentration camp when in reality they'd be traveling to freedom. Although the idea is initially met with criticism, after no one else comes up with anything better, the wise men agree.

The only problem is that they don't have a way to get through German checkpoints without German soldiers onboard a train, and to make matters worse, they don't even have a train. Thus, the rabbi and the others choose a group of men to dress and act like Nazis, with Mordechai (RUFUS), to play the head officer.

Slowly acquiring and then fixing up freight cars and finally a locomotive for their train, the villagers set off on their trek to Palestine. Among the many villagers onboard is Esther (AGATHE DE LA FONTAINE), the town beauty who's in love with Mordechai's son, Sami (MIHAI CALIN), as well as Yossi (MICHAEL MULLER), a young man who believes himself a communist and is determined to convert the others.

As the villagers' train makes its way through the European countryside -- driven by a man who's never conducted a train before but is learning via a manual -- they must contend with several problems. They include a small group of resistance fighters who believe the "soldiers" to be real Germans, Yossi's protests and attempts at causing a communist uprising on board the train, Mordechai and his troops taking their role playing a bit too seriously, and finally real German units who stop the train at various points questioning their orders and destination.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Further illustrating that the filmmaking world imitates success and/or simultaneously develops similar ideas and turns them into movies, Radu Mihaileanu's "Train of Life" is the third film in two years to use the Holocaust as a basis and fodder for comedy. Like Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful" and the recent Robin Williams vehicle, "Jakob the Liar," this film is a fantasy of happier times during the WWII atrocities.

While it obviously isn't the intention of any of the filmmakers or their films to be irreverent or make light of those events, of the three this one most easily could draw such criticism. A French film with English subtitles, "Train of Life" precariously teeters on the edge of that country's version of a farce and what some might see as bad taste.

What with the easily fooled and buffoon-like German officers and the moments where the villagers happily dance about while working as lively Jewish music plays, one might begin wondering how long it will be before Werner Klemperer and John Banner appear yelling "Hogan!" and "I saw nothing" respectively, or Topol shows up singing about tradition or if he were a rich man.

As such, and unlike "Life is Beautiful" and "Jakob the Liar" where for the most part the comedy sprang from believable characters and catalysts, here most of the characters are broad caricatures (all the Jewish "wise men" running around waving their hands in the air) and the individual scenes mostly come off as silly (the train conductor hanging out of the locomotive, train operating manual in hand, to see if the wheels are rotating clockwise).

While those other movies (and plenty of others) had their share of lighter WWII moments and even the 1960's TV show "Hogan's Heroes" took a whimsical look at Nazi Germany, one has to wonder about the audience's tolerance for another round of such touchy material. Although Benigni's film was well accepted, Williams' wasn't, thus suggesting that the third time around for such a story might not be the charm for which the filmmakers here were hoping.

Of course, writer/director Radu Mihaileanu ("Betrayal") has made sure to give the film's characters some later and much needed depth and the scenes in which they appear some additional poignancy. Yet the film rarely connects with the audience on a deep emotional level and the ending -- while believably explaining why things played out the way they did before it -- is sure to divide audiences over its sudden, one hundred and eighty-degree turn.

Some will see it as a wonderfully ironic, closing touch, while others will find it to be a cheap and manipulative ploy designed as the big twist or as a way of adding some reverence back to and/or paying restitution for the "follies" preceding it.

It's not until Rufus ("The Tenant," "Marriage and Les Miserables"), who plays Mordechai the Woodworker, grabs a hold of the proceedings and makes the film his that the film begins to feel focused. While he initially appears to transform from a reluctant Jew into a faux German officer who lets his power go to his head (generating the film's best moments in what turns out to be a clever parody of what really happened to Germans under the Nazi regime), he brings some depth and compassion to his character that finally make him the film's key sympathetic figure.

Up until that point -- and despite the basic thrust of the characters trying to get out of Dodge, so to speak -- the film is filled with mildly entertaining but otherwise forgettable moments. Without a central protagonist to follow, the audience is left to watch the proceedings without ever really getting wrapped up into them.

Beyond Mordechai, most of the remaining characters don't connect that well individually with the audience and don't develop much, or at all. Nevertheless, the lighthearted and comical way in which they're played does make them and the overall film a bit easier to swallow.

Playing the Roberto Benigni type part, Lionel Abelanski ("Le Femme du Cosmonaute," "Le Grand Chelem"), does a decent job as the idealist whose "fool" label disguises the character's hopes and dreams. As the town elder and rabbi, European veteran actor Clement Harari ("The Longest Day," "The Sleeping Car") brings some fun to his character, while Michael Muller ("Asterix et Obelix Contre Cesar") doesn't make his communist character funny enough to get over the more annoying parts, and pretty Agathe de la Fontaine ("Another 9 1/2 Weeks") seems present mainly to earn the film's R rating via some nudity and sex.

The film will probably play differently to different people -- and one's reaction will likely depend on the mood they're in at the time and whether they've seen and how they've reacted to the other two recent Holocaust related films. There is no denying, however, and for better or worse, that this one's the most farcical of the bunch.

While nothing grand, the film has some exaggerated, but only mildly funny bits laced with a few poignant, but not particularly deep or moving emotional moments that in the end create a slightly entertaining picture. As such, we give "Train of Life" a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 15, 1999 / Posted November 19, 1999

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