If you liked "Life is Beautiful," you'll love "Train of Life."
If you found the implausibility of "Life is Beautiful" the least bit distracting, you may as well throw in the towel on this one.
"Train of Life," being released today (Friday, Nov. 12) by Paramount Classics, is the third to be released in a series of recent Holocaust "comedies," all of which involve deception.
In "Life is Beautiful," the lead character, portrayed by Italian comedian Roberto Benigni, convinces his son that their life at a concentration camp is really an elaborate game.
In "Jakob the Liar," Robin Williams, as Jakob, tries to keep up the morale of his fellow ghetto residents by inventing news of Allied victories, supposedly gleaned from a hidden radio.
Now in "Train of Life," French-speaking residents of a Jewish village in 1941, aware that German troops will soon come with a train and carry them away to a horrendous fate, devise a scheme to buy a train, dress up certain members of the community as Nazis, and deport themselves through Russia and eventually to Palestine.
The central character who concocts the scheme, Shlomo, is the village fool, but he doubles as the most creative thinker in the shtetl. The movie begins with Shlomo running into town to inform the rabbi that the Nazis are coming soon, giving the viewer no opportunity to get to know the characters at all prior to the threat of imminent invasion and the plotting that immediately ensues.
the villagers prepare to leave on the train, in scenes that look remarkably like a French version of "Fiddler on the Roof." While packing and sewing uniforms, the villagers stop to dance and sing. There is even a flirtatious, beautiful girl prancing through town who absolutely every man in the film is hot for.
The implausibility factor gets taken to extremes mainly in the incredible risks the villagers take, further endangering their already precarious scheme, just so they can observe every Jewish tradition.
They put mezuzot up on the train cars, then cover them up with car numbers and swastikas. Watching them kiss their fingers and touch the numbers as they board the trains is surreal.
The villagers take their Torah, a ton of kosher food and all sorts of belongings that Jews being carted away by Nazis would never have been allowed. when they run out of food and stop at a German military camp for supplies, they insist on preparing the food themselves so it will be kosher, even slaughtering their own animals.
Through most of the movie, the villagers' luck is beyond incredible. No one notices the mysterious fringe peeking out of one of the Nazi uniforms of a masquerading Jew. Mordechai, the wood merchant who portrays the train's Nazi commander, actually convinces real Nazis that his train is not on the list of deportation trains in the area because it carries especially dangerous Communist Jews and so everyone wants to sabotage it.
Still, if disbelief can be suspended, there is a poignancy to the tale and to the characters' evolution and growth. As in life, despite needing one another desperately, the villagers begin to turn on each other. Certainly, they cannot survive divided.
On its face, the movie seems like just one more Holocaust tale of false hope kept alive by a lie, another reason to protest that Hollywood is trivializing Jewish tragedy.
But "Train of Life" is more than that. It also is a parable about how much more we can accomplish together than apart. And it is a story of the need to hold on to things familiar and meaningful, even at great personal risk, and that includes the people we love.