Train of Life
Here's the story: In a little Jewish shtetl in an unnamed country of Eastern Europe -- a shtetl right out of an Isaac Bashevis Singer tale of the town of Chelm, in which the elders are terminally stupid and the fools are wise -- the townspeople are confronted in the summer of 1941 with news of the advancing Nazi army. It will soon overrun their village. What to do?
Well, they buy themselves a locomotive, build themselves some box cars, load themselves up inside as though they're on their way to Auschwitz, disguise a few of the townsmen as Nazi soldiers pretending to guard the train, and take off for free Soviet Russia, from where they hope to go to Palestine.
The film is one part "Fiddler on the Roof," one part Holocaust story, one part Chelm story, and three parts "The Great Escape." Does this make a movie? Well, let's be generous and give Romanian writer-director Radu Mihaileanu credit for a well-meaning attempt. Certainly it's nothing to be ashamed of, nor is it a piece of meretricious slime on the same subject, like "Life is Beautiful."
On the other hand, neither is it a very good film. The townspeople sing and dance as though they were figures in an early Disney cartoon, they run around like idiots when they're frightened, and they speak only in clichés. The script tries to set off the stupid elders against the town fool Shlomo (Lionel Abelanski), a là the Chelm stories, but neither he nor they are well enough drawn to keep our interest. One part of the film that does work is the choice of a supposedly Germanic-looking townsman to play the role of the arrogant Nazi colonel in charge of the train (the actor goes by the single name Rufus). He carries out the part with wit and panache, and almost singlehandedly saves the movie.
As the train meanders through the countryside, moving ever closer to the Russian-German front lines, the little group survives everything from encounters with the Nazis to attempts by a guerrilla group -- not knowing that it's a fake -- to blow up the tracks and derail the train. Ultimately -- well, ultimately, there's just too little here to make a worthwhile film. And there's a preposterous coda in which, unmotivated by anything we've seen, Shlomo the fool is the only one actually caught and put in a concentration camp. Either Mihaileanu forgot to write a crucial scene, or something important was cut in the editing. Either way it undercuts everything that went before.
The story goes that ten years ago, when this script was looking for a star to play Shlomo the fool, it was shown to Roberto Benigni, who turned it down. The question is whether this script ultimately gave him the idea for "Life is Beautiful." We won't know, but more important, we won't care.