Using the real family members as actors, Makhmalbaf re-creates crucial scenes from their lives while constructing fresh dramatic situations. We watch as the children, as naive and unsocialized as three-year-olds, discover ice cream and then apples, the fruit that becomes a symbol of their liberation. Remarkably nonjudgmental, the film allows the father to explain that locking up the children was the only solution that made sense to him. Given the fact that his wife was blind, he didn't think the twins were safe unless confined. He is also astoundingly unapologetic. He reads from a book that advises fathers to keep their daughters inside lest they be tarnished by contact with the world. Not until a social worker locks him up in his own house does he begin to glimpse the darkness to which he has sentenced his daughters.

Makhmalbaf's own father wrote the screenplay for the film, but The Apple is clearly the young woman's vision. She directs with an inventive eye, at one point giving the children mirrors to play with and then filming the various images reflected in them. The picture is awash in saturated primary colors. Single objects -- an apple, a cup, a goat -- take on talismanic properties. In its most powerful moments, The Apple addresses the fate of the girls' blind mother, nearly left behind when the rest of the family is liberated. She comes across as both sinister and pitiful, and significantly we never see her face. (It's hidden behind her chador.) She haunts us in the film's enduring final sequence as she stands in front of a mirror, not seeing but suggesting that her image has much to tell.

-- Robin Dougherty (Saturday, February 20, 2 p.m.)

"Once upon a time in the shtetl," says the narrator at the beginning of Train of Life, French-Romanian director Radu Mihaileanu's tragicomic fable about an Eastern European village that, in 1941, tries to outwit the Nazis in an astoundingly unusual way. When village fool Shlomo learns that the Germans have deported Jews in neighboring towns, he goes to his town's elders to help them concoct a plan. Together they decide to assemble a fake transport train to carry the village's entire population to what was then Palestine. Aboard the train townspeople will masquerade as Nazi officers in hopes of fooling the German Army during the journey.

The resulting film -- surely the only one to feature a montage set to klezmer music -- is not always as successful as its hilarious premise. As the train winds its way east toward the Russian border, its inhabitants experience several near misses with disaster, including one in which a passenger, left behind at a rest stop, is almost killed by real Germans. But Mihaileanu is less interested in telling a suspense story than he is in exploring the escape scheme's comic possibilities. He exploits the absurdity of the shtetl Jews -- self-proclaimed expert tailors -- whipping up authentic-looking SS uniforms and has them hide mezuzahs (small prayer scrolls) under the swastikas emblazoned on each train car. The film's major set piece involves the "Nazis" aboard the train requisitioning a giant kosher feast right under the noses of real Germans. And in one poignant scene, the travelers stop to celebrate the Sabbath: They bow their heads in prayer, many of them wearing yarmulkes atop their Nazi attire.

Less Mel Brooks than Isaac Bashevis Singer, Mihaileanu's comic sensibility is antiquated and droll rather than side-splittingly funny. Train of Life (in French with English subtitles) doesn't boast the razor-sharp daring of this past year's Life Is Beautiful, another film that uses comedy to address the Holocaust. But anyone who harbors nostalgia for a more innocent era of Yiddish humor or who recognizes the film's parody of shtetl life, with burgeoning communist cells duking it out with religious factions, will cherish the evocation of a certain time and place and culture that Mihaileanu re-creates aboard the train. And his affable cast portrays the village's endearing, ragtag characters with an in-your-face acting style.

Mihaileanu, who grew up in Romania but now lives in Paris, has said that he was inspired to make his movie after seeing Schindler's List and realizing that filmmakers needed to find fresh ways to chronicle the Holocaust. According to a published interview, he heard the story of the fake transport train at a dinner party. But after exhaustive research in numerous Holocaust archives, the director was unable to verify the tale's authenticity. Of course, whether it really happened or not is beside the point. By depicting a specific event that most probably never occurred, Mihaileanu makes us understand what did occur with new eyes.

Humor has always been a useful weapon of the persecuted -- all the more so if it takes the form of imagining that the townspeople of a tiny village could fashion a train out of salvage, disguise themselves as their enemies, and escape death at the hands one of the most evil forces in the world.

-- Robin Dougherty (Sunday, February 21, 11:30 a.m.)

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