NEW YORK — A new French comedy called Train of Life tells the humor-filled tale of an unusual project: Jewish villagers attempt to save their community from the Holocaust by purchasing a railroad train, putting Nazi uniforms on their most military-looking menfolk, and deporting themselves to another country before German boxcars can carry them to extermination camps.
Told in the broadly droll manner of an ironic folk tale, this story raises the same provocative question posed by the Oscar-winning Italian hit "Life Is Beautiful." Can an event as horrific as the Holocaust be responsibly explored through a movie played mainly for laughs?
American moviegoers said "yes" when they made "Life Is Beautiful" the most profitable foreign-language import of all time. But some critics (including this one) disagree with that verdict, arguing that Roberto Benigni's fast-talking farce - about a father who protects his son in a death camp by convincing him it's all an elaborate game - trivializes the Holocaust and paints a distorted picture of Nazi power that could mislead young viewers.
This doesn't mean comedy is never appropriate for storytellers trying sincerely to grapple with history's most difficult realities. Gifted filmmakers have used humor to examine the World War II era before, from Charles Chaplin in "The Great Dictator" to Lina Wertmuller in "Seven Beauties" and Ernst Lubitsch in "To Be or Not To Be," ingenious movies that use their comic edge to undermine forces of evil instead of dodging or denying them.
"Train of Life," directed by Rumanian-born filmmaker Radu Mihaileanu, doesn't reach the level of those classics. But it avoids the pitfalls of "Life Is Beautiful" by using a clearly allegorical tone to dispel any sense of realism from its impossible story, which is based on a rumored event that could never have actually happened.
It also includes a tough-minded ending that reaffirms sad facts of history with a directness Benigni's comedy lacks. What lingers in the mind after "Train of Life" is the resourcefulness not only of its colorful characters but of the great tradition of Eastern European tale-telling, which has spun such yarns for centuries as a way of confronting and understanding severe hardships.
Also arriving on American screens is Rosetta, the Belgian drama that recently won the Cannes filmfest's highest prize. Played by teenager Emilie Dequenne, who shared the festival's best-actress award, the title character is a girl facing poverty and unemployment. Convinced that a regular job would save her alcoholic mother and herself from their problems, she makes a series of desperate efforts to set her life on a normal path.
"Rosetta" has less urgency than "La Promesse," the brilliant 1996 feature by directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, but it carries a strong emotional charge along with its valuable reminder of the suffering that youngsters may undergo when a heedless society overlooks their needs.
*'Train of Life,' rated R, contains brief nudity and a Holocaust theme. 'Rosetta,' rated R, deals explicitly with poverty and related ills.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society