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Shlomo (Lionel Abelanski) is the village fool in a small Jewish town in central Europe, some time in the middle of World War II. When he finds out that the Nazis are coming to deport the entire village, he has a brilliant idea: the townsfolk can build a fake deportation train to cross the Russian border and get to Palestine. With a handful of residents disguised as German soldiers the village secures a locomotive and rolling stock and embarks on an eventful journey through central Europe at the height of the Nazi advance.

"Around two years ago, Roberto Benigni's film Life Is Beautiful - a comedy about a half-Jewish man and his son who are sent to a Nazi death camp - sparked off a controversy that went well beyond the usual bounds of film criticism. Some writers considered the film to be a life-affirming masterpiece. Others felt there was something obscene about the very idea of a 'Holocaust comedy.' Train Of Life is unlikely to renew this debate to any great extent, simply because it's a less interesting film. The success of Life Is Beautiful owed much to Benigni's unique clowning and a very cunningly constructed script. Train Of Life (which was actually made first) is a more ragged affair, held together by a strong premise and the gusto of its folk humour. One frequent objection to Benigni's film was his tendency to hog the limelight, reducing the other prisoners to a backdrop for his antics. Train Of Life takes the opposite tack: it's very much a film about a community. Especially in the first half, nearly all the scenes are crowded with people - yelling at each other in village meetings, or scurrying about as they get their phony train ready to ride. The disadvantage of this method is that it reduces individual characters to squabbling puppets: even the 'wise fool' narrator is not much more than a familiar literary device. Despite these differences, the two films work in fundamentally the same way: both centre on characters whose response to the threat of genocide is to escape or deny what's going on, allowing the audience to 'escape' with them. Hence their perhaps unresolvable ambiguity: is this 'escapism' finally a way of evading and denying the reality of the Holocaust, submerging it in a spurious 'feelgood' gesture? Or - since the fantasy in both films is explicitly presented as fantasy - should it be seen instead as a form of tact, acknowledging the horror while refusing the impossible task of representing it head-on?"
Jake Wilson

"It's easy to understand how Train Of Life won the audience award at Sundance. Making a funny, feel-good adventure from one of humankind's darkest chapters is no small feat and for the most part writer/director Radu Mahaileaunu pulls it off. Comparisons with Ernst Lubitsch's To Be Or Not To Be (1942) and Roberto Benignin's Life Is Beautiful (1996) are inevitable in the fairy-tale scenario which allows the shtetl residents to first find a fully operational train and then fool the dumb Nazis at each encounter. The comedic elements are mostly successful, especially in the lively opening scenes after village idiot Shlomo (Lionel Abelanski) hatches the plan. There's a wonderful energy to the frantic preparation of Nazi uniforms, the allocation of those who will wear the uniforms and the arrival of the train itself, complete with a railway department archivist who's never driven a loco but at least has a manual. None of it is believable for a second, not that it matters in a fable such as this which sets out to celebrate Jewish tradition and gently explore human foibles. Much of it is charming but the good work is constantly threatened by an unwieldy and frankly boring sub-plot about a communist uprising in the boxcars. In the middle of a life and death journey through enemy territory it seems incongruous at the very least to have a rebellious faction emerge and bring political rhetoric into the equation. Are we really expected to care about the virtues of Marxism at this point?. Fortunately there are enough vibrant characterisations elsewhere to overcome this derailment but it's a close call at times. Train Of Life also tries a little too hard to make much of this poignant - a hard act to carry off in a fantasy which has more in common with Hogan's Heroes than Schindler's List - but does achieve something extraordinary in its final, unforgettable shot. A delightful music score and handsome photography of lush green landscapes add to this feel good/feel sad film which still registers as an appealing item despite the shortcomings."
Richard Kuipers

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Train de Vie

(Belgium, France, Netherlands)

CAST: Lionel Abelanski, Rufus, Clement Harari, Michel Muller, Agathe De La
DIRECTOR: Radu Mihaileanu

PRODUCER: Marc Baschet, Ludi Boeken, Eric Dussart, Cedomir Kolar

SCRIPT: Radu Mihaileanu

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Yorgos Arvanitis, Laurent Daillant

EDITOR: Monique Rysselinck

MUSIC: Goran Bregovic

PRODUCTION DESIGN: Christian Niculescu

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 12, 2000 (Melbourne);

December 21, 2000 (Sydney)

French with English subtitles

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