The concentration-camp comedy is, understandably, a negligible genre. Jerry Lewis’ The Day the Clown Cried was never officially completed, and more recently the BBC’s Genghis Cohn, a dark farce about a Jewish comedian executed by the Nazis, was not commercially released in the U.S. (although it screened in the 1995 Washington Jewish Film Festival). Now there’s Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, whose Cannes Grand Jury Prize has already given it more visibility than its few predecessors.

Such prototypical Benigni movies as Johnny Stecchino and The Monster turn on questions of identity: The popular Italian comedian plays an innocent bumbler who’s mistaken for a dangerous criminal. Life Is Beautiful twists this premise only slightly. Writer-director-star Benigni’s Guido is again an innocent man, a waiter who later becomes the proprietor of a small bookshop. But his identity itself is dangerous. He’s a Jew living in that part of Italy occupied by German troops after Mussolini’s government collapsed in 1943.

After an ambiguous prologue, Life Is Beautiful divides into two parts. In the first, Guido and his friend Ferruccio (Sergio Bustric) arrive in a Tuscan town, where Guido’s uncle runs a hotel. The tone is set by Guido’s initial mishap: When the brakes on Ferruccio’s car fail, Guido waves frantically to warn people, only to have the locals return his gesture with a fascist salute. Mussolini’s followers are laughably gullible, and Guido will have much fun at their expense for the next 45 minutes or so.

Guido’s principal target is a local fascist official who takes an instant dislike to the newcomer. Naturally, the officious bureaucrat is engaged to the attractive schoolteacher who catches Guido’s eye. Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni’s wife and usual co-star) tries to resist her new suitor’s entreaties, but Guido is too delightful. Ultimately, he carries Dora off from her own engagement party on a horse that’s been painted green by anti-Semitic vandals.

This section of the film owes much of its spirit and style to Chaplin’s 1940 anti-Nazi comedy, The Great Dictator. The key scene is one in which Guido, posing as a school inspector in order to meet Dora again, is called on to lecture schoolchildren on Italian racial superiority. Turning the talk into a shambolic striptease, Guido reveals his bony frame as “pure Aryan,” calling particular attention to his large ears. “They dream about these in France,” he boasts. It’s a funny line, although it was not the French who menaced Europe in 1939.

The juxtaposition of manic slapstick and racial “science” is devastating to the latter, yet on one level Guido’s claims of superiority are true: He excels not in physique or intelligence, but in charm that verges on wizardry. In a series of elaborate physical gags, Guido demonstrates a seemingly magical mastery over his universe, continually impressing Dora. This too is a rebuke to science. As Benigni’s own career shows, the “perfect” physical specimen doesn’t always triumph.

Dora and Guido marry and have a son, Giosué# (Giorgio Cantarini), who is 5 when the second chapter begins: Guido and Giosué# are rounded up and sent to a (unidentified) concentration camp. Though she’s not Jewish, Dora insists on going, too. Improbably, Guido is able to keep Giosué# with him in the men’s barracks. (A historical essay in the film’s press kit insists that this occasionally happened, but it’s unlikely that it ever occurred with a boy this young.) To keep Giosué’s spirits up, Guido insists that everyone in the camp is playing an elaborate game; any childishness on his son’s part will cost them points. This ruse works all too well—that is, it works so well that it’s impossible to believe that Guido and Giosué# are really in a Nazi camp.

Ironically, during most of World War II, Jews in Italy were less at risk than those in the countries conquered by the Axis. Italian fascism originally had no racial or ethnic animus, and Jews were not deported in large numbers until after Mussolini fell. This fortunate situation may justify the movie’s blithe first half, but after Guido and his family are deported, the enchantment proves insufficient. Feel-good filmmakers often tell improbable stories of ordinary people who make extraordinary efforts to protect the innocent; viewers are supposed to, in the classic phrase, suspend disbelief. In the context of the Holocaust, however, suspending disbelief is a problematic goal. It’s not only inevitable that Life Is Beautiful’s concentration-camp scenes don’t work—it’s for the best.

Joining Life Is Beautiful this week is the restoration of Fellini’s 1957 Nights of Cabiria; adding these to the number of Italian films that have been released commercially in Washington this year brings the total to exactly two. Blame the closing of the Key and the Biograph, but also the timidity of U.S. “independent” distributors, who would rather try to make a quick buck on an American-made stinker such as Orgazmo than risk buying the rights to a subtitled film. Fewer than 20 of the latter have played in D.C. commercial theaters so far in 1998—which is why programs like the American Film Institute’s European Union Showcase have become so important. The 22 films in this year’s series include some that will get commercial bookings here; in fact, the opening-night entry, Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, is scheduled for Nov. 6. Still, for many of these films, these screenings will be their only local shot.

As it happens, one of the highlights among the eight films made available for preview (all on video) is also Italian. Aprile is the latest cinematic essay from Nanni (Caro Diario) Moretti, who might be described as the college-educated Roberto Benigni. For Moretti, the personal is decidedly political: Aprile (Oct. 31 at 6:30 p.m., Nov. 1 at 2 p.m., Nov. 3 at 6:30 p.m.) interweaves the birth of the director’s son with discussions of the plight of Albanian refugees and the proposed breakaway northern Italian republic of Podonia. Playful and loosely structured, the movie nominally turns on the conflict between a ’50s musical that Moretti doesn’t know how to direct and the documentary about the latest Italian general election that he believes he should make but doesn’t really want to. The manifestation of the director’s ultimate decision is hilarious, but so are such asides as Moretti’s regret at taking his (unborn) son to see the wretched sci-fi flick Strange Days.

The first film directed by veteran producer Jeremy Thomas, All the Little Animals (Nov. 14 at 6:45 p.m., Nov. 15 at 5 p.m.) seems both very early-’70s and enduringly British. Adapted by Eski Thomas from Walter Hamilton’s novel, this is a classic yet distinctive good-father/bad-father parable: Quiet, gentle (and slightly brain-damaged) Bobby (Christian Bale) escapes hateful stepfather the Fat (Daniel Benzali) and flees London for Cornwall, where he happens to meet Mr. Summers (John Hurt), who has taken upon himself the task of burying all the animals killed by callous motorists. Bobby is ideally suited for “the work,” as Summers calls it, but the specter of the Fat continues to trouble him. A fairy tale laced with horror, Thomas eloquently captures the commonplace confusions of adolescence in circumstances that are more enchanted than everyday.

Equally powerful but considerably less bucolic, Titanic Town (Nov. 7 at 4:15 p.m., Nov. 8 at 8:30 p.m.) is the story of a housewife who tries to bring peace to the housing estates of ’70s Belfast (the city where the Titanic was built). Bernie (Julie Walters) is saying something that must be said, but her IRA-sympathizer neighbors—and her husband, Aidan (Ciarán Hinds), and oldest child, Annie (Nuala O’Neill)—want her to shut up. Adapted by Anne Devlin from Mary Costello’s novel, Roger (Persuasion) Michell’s film treats the Troubles with outrage, black humor, and nuanced characterization. If the concerns of her family are not entirely noble—teenage Annie is worried that mom’s notoriety will mess up her new romance—Bernie herself is naive, garrulous, and overly impressed with her new fame. The long-intractable conflict in Northern Ireland has been addressed in film many times, but Michell’s treatment is fresh and compelling.

Although it’s set some distance from ’70s Belfast, in contemporary Dublin, Crush Proof (Nov. 10 at 8:15 p.m., Nov. 14 at 3:45 p.m.) is no less blood-soaked. Fresh out of jail for selling ecstasy, 18-year-old Neil (Darren Healy) links up with his old crowd, who like to take drugs, go to raves, and steal cars. They’re typical rough-edged European adolescents, it would seem, except that Neil and his friends all ride horses. Their suburban housing development is depicted as the last outpost of the Celtic warrior, and when an obsessed cop comes after Neil for the accidental slaying of a former associate, Neil and six pals saddle up and head into the countryside. Shot by director Paul Tickell with jumpy impressionism and extreme closeups, this succession of riots, raves, and prison and bar fights has a nervous energy reminiscent of Olivier Assayas. The lack of sympathetic characters, however, is a hindrance.

The middle third of Tropic of Emerald (Nov. 5 at 6:30 p.m., Nov. 6 at 8:30 p.m., Nov. 7 at 2 p.m.) reprises Paradise Road, Bruce Beresford’s 1997 film about Western women imprisoned by Japanese troops in Sumatra during World War II. In Orlow Seunke’s film, the protagonists are two lovers, Dutch rubber-plantation boss Theo (Pierre Bokma) and volatile Indo-Dutch beauty Ems (Esmée de la Bretonière). After the Emperor’s troops arrive in Java, Theo finds himself eating rats in a jungle stockade, while Ems is forced to entertain (both onstage and elsewhere) in a brothel for Japanese officers. The story of these two, however, is less interesting than the historical context, which is provided by lots of documentary footage and voice-over reminiscences. Particularly interesting is the account of the period between V-J Day and Holland’s 1949 decision to grant Indonesia’s independence, which easily overshadows the melodrama of Theo and Ems’ various makeups and breakups.

Berlin teenager Mimmi might seem to have a full life: studying for exams, planning her trip to Paris, fighting with her mother, rebuffing her boyfriend, sleeping with her driving instructor. But the spirit of Angela Schanelec’s Places in Cities (Oct. 31 at 2 p.m., Nov. 3 at 8:15 p.m.) is as cold and dry as the film’s title. With its fixed camera positions and extra-beat takes, the film seems just as terse and distant as Mimmi herself, allowing itself some freedom for only as long as it takes Mimmi and a friend to dance poolside to a Joni Mitchell song. Moody, dark, and formal, Schanelec’s austere second feature shows the influence of Chantal Akerman, and it will no doubt benefit from being shown in a cinema. On video, this sort of minimalism doesn’t command much attention, but on a big screen it can (sometimes) be hypnotic.

Almost a musical, The River of Gold (Nov. 1 at 8:15 p.m., Nov. 2 at 8:30 p.m.) follows the course of several jealous spouses and lovers who live along Portugal’s River Douro. Middle-aged newlywed Caroline (Isabel Ruth) tries to protect her pregnant goddaughter, Melita (Joana Bá#rcia), from the latter’s married lover, but the two become rivals when they both begin sleeping with traveling jewelry salesman Joachim (António Capelo). Paulo Rocha’s film has some striking scenes and makes operatic use of such visual motifs as water, fire, gold, and blood. Those not intoxicated by the frequent folk songs and the characters’ high passions, however, will find this folkloric spectacle merely overwrought.

Luxembourg’s entry is by Andy Bausch, who, as far as Washingtonians know, is Luxembourg’s only director. His Back in Trouble (Nov. 12 at 6:30 p.m., Nov. 14 at 2 p.m.) transplants the Tarantino ethos to his homeland’s not-especially-mean streets, in the form of a swaggering but dumb ex-con who calls himself Johnny Chicago (Thierry Van Werveke). With the help of a blues score, Johnny enlists some other losers to stage a series of bungled robberies; he gets his ex-girlfriend arrested and an accomplice shot, but to little financial benefit. This may be funnier for those who know the milieu, but visually it peaks with the trendy typography of the opening credits.

Not available for preview were several films by known directors, including George (The Vanishing) Sluizer’s The Commissioner, Pupi (The Three of Us) Avati’s The Best Man, Patrice (Queen Margot) Chéreau’s Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, and Jan (The Emigrants) Troell’s A Frozen Dream. Given today’s film-distribution climate, there’s no reason to think these will ever pass through town again. The same goes for the rest of the fest’s selection: If something sounds interesting, you’d be wise to see it now.CP