Train of Life

on November 05, 1999 by Wade Major
   Between "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Life is Beautiful," by way of Emir Kusturica's "Underground," comes "Train of Life," a joyful, if jittery, fable of hope set against the cacophony of the impending Holocaust. Written and directed by Romanian-born Radu Mihaileanu, the award-winning French-language comedy follows the offbeat odyssey of an entire village of Eastern European Jews as they endeavor to preempt their certain seizure by the Nazis in staging their own deportation.
   When it becomes clear that his quaint little shtetl will not be spared the advance of Hitler's war machine, Rabbi (Clement Harari) solicits suggestions from the townfolk, finally settling on the outrageous proposal of Shlomo The Fool (Lionel Abelanski) that they simply deport themselves first. Faster than anyone can say "l'chaim," the entire village has pitched in--creating false documents, purchasing and refitting a dilapidated old train with Nazi markings and sewing authentic Nazi uniforms for whichever courageous villagers can speak the best German.
   It's a clever, even brilliant, conceit that writer/director Mihaileanu--himself a Jewish refugee from the regime of former Romanian dictator Ceausescu--does one step even better. Like Roberto Begnini's "Life is Beautiful," which "Train of Life" allegedly pre-dates, the humor is merely dressing for the wound, allowing Mihaileanu to address other equally compelling issues of the era that might otherwise have been overshadowed by the weight of the Holocaust itself. Not the least of these is the internal strife that erupts between the once happy villagers during the course of their odyssey, a bizarre schism that pits the mock-deportees against the mock-Nazi officers, with another faction of would-be Leninists finally stirring enough trouble to all but sabotage the plan.
   Though far from the league of "Life is Beautiful," "Train of Life" nonetheless manifests a quirky charm of its own that will have a special appeal to fans of Emir Kusturica's unique brand of Felliniesque, Eastern-European theatrics. Kusturica's carnival-like style, in fact, seems to have been a clear influence here, sometimes pushing the film just a bit too far towards the absurd. Most of the weaknesses, however, are weighted into the first third of the film, leaving the better part of the final hour virtually flawless.    Starring Lionel Abelanski, Rufus, Clement Harari, Michael Muller, Agathe de la Fontaine and Bruno Abraham-Kremer. Directed and written by Radu Mihaileanu. Produced by Marc Bashet, Ludi Boeken, Frederique Dumas-Zajdela, Eric Dussart and Cedomir Kolar. A Paramount Classics release. Period Drama. French- and German-language; subtitled. Rated R for some sexuality and nudity. Running time: 103 min.
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