25 July 2001 | Zen Bones
Real Jewish humour!
This film is often compared to LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, and with good reason. They are both comedies that take on the treacherously delicate subject of the Holocaust. Also, Benigni turned down the opportunity to make this film and then "borrowed" the idea of a Holocaust comedy to make his film. Which is fine with me because in his hands, the film would have sunk into offensive silliness. Benigni is Italian, which means he is great at Italian humour. But he hasn't an idea as to what real Jewish humour is like. This film is a quintessentially Jewish film. It is about the old world Jewish experience that can only be understood and articulated by a Jew with old world roots. Unfortunately, much of the old world Jewish lifestyle and humour has been lost to recent generations. To some viewers, the characters in this film may seem like characters out of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. But despite the broad characterizations for the benefit of Jewish humour, the characters here are all quite human and honest. Jewish humour by the way, depends on flagrant exaggeration and waggish expression. The film even uses a great analogy of this when it explains that Yiddish is basically German with a sense of humour. Take away the exaggerated humour, and you've got basic German.
The story is about the inhabitants of a French shtetl (Jewish village) who decide to deport themselves to Palestine before the Nazis come and deport them to concentration camps. They buy a train, tailor a few dozen Nazi uniforms and flee across the continent, sidestepping real Nazis and French resistance fighters who think that the train of Jews is a Nazi train. There is a subplot involving an outbreak of communism among some of the Jews on the train that gets a little tired. But then that does live up to the film's title. This train of life is a microcosm of society, with all of its pettiness and short-sightedness.
This is a beautiful film that is much funnier and bittersweet than LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL without the unnecessary manipulations to pull on our heartstrings. For those who want to taste the real Jewish experience, I recommend this highly!
ADDENDUM: There are many who feel that it is sacrilege to make any type of comedy about the Jewish experience during WWll. To make light of suffering or to drastically bend or cover up the truth for the sake of "entertainment", is sacrilege. But this film does not do any of those things. It retains the humour and the dignity of a culture that was almost made extinct. It provides us with a great tribute to the spirit and perseverance of those people.