October 28, 1999
Meandering Plots Derail ‘Train’
By Curt Schleier
"Train of Life" uses fantasy and humor to deal with a Holocaust theme. Sound familiar?
Actually, the French film (with English subtitles) was conceived and completed before "Life Is Beautiful," and the central role of Shlomo the Fool was offered initially to Roberto Benigni, director and star of "Life Is Beautiful."
It is "Train of Life's" misfortune to be released a year after the Oscar-winning Italian film, to which it inevitably will be compared and judged.
Radu Mihaileanu, the Romanian-born writer and director of "Train" started with a clever and promising idea: news of the approaching Nazi army reaches a remote East European shtetl. The rabbi and the Chelm-like wise men ponder what to do, but it is Shlomo, the savant-fool, who comes up with an ingenious idea.
The shtetl will deport itself, via an old but renovated train, with some of the village people dressed up as Nazi officers and soldiers guarding the "deportees," until the train reaches Israel, where everybody will live happily ever after.
The elders select Mordechai, the woodworker, to be the Nazi commander. The barber shears his beard and payes, the tailor fabricates a German colonel's uniform, complete with medals, and off they go.
While "Life Is Beautiful" remained true to its fable on its own terms and stuck to a simple story line, "Train" is weighed down by meandering subplots.
One repugnant villager becomes a rabid communist and organizes a revolutionary cell aboard the train. A band of hapless partisans tries to blow up the train. A horde of Gypsies comes aboard and makes beautiful music (and love) with the shtetl's klezmorim.
Then there is Esther, the shtetl's sexpot, who is given to baring her breasts and poses fetchingly in the nude in a mikvah scene.
If the movie is approached with the same good-humored disbelief as in viewing, say, "Fiddler on the Roof," it could work. Otherwise, the excesses of the story line extend to many of the character portrayals, with the rabbi and village elders bordering frequently on Yiddish caricatures, given to a great many "Oys" and gesticulating arguments.
An exception is Lionel Abelanski, who gives a touching and restrained performance as the wise fool.
Rufus (no last name) faced a special challenge. The Gentile actor had first to learn how to be a shtetl Jew, and then a shtetl Jew posing as a Nazi officer. Considering the strain of the double transition, he acquits himself credibly.
Agathe de la Fontaine, the passionate Esther, looks lovely, dressed or undressed, and not much more is required of her.
Writer-director Mihaileanu is the son of a shtetl-born writer and was a member of the Bucharest Yiddish Theater before leaving Romania in 1980. He moved to Israel and then settled in France, where he became a filmmaker.
"Train" has won more than 10 international awards, including the Audience Award-World Cinema at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival.
"Train" will open the Jewish Film Festival on Nov. 2 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science.