Like an Iraq-war mirror image of "Life Is Beautiful," actor-director Roberto Benigni's "The Tiger and the Snow" re-runs the successful structure and comic persona of the 1998 Oscar-winning film in a trippy fantasia about a poet who follows his love to hell and, in this happier ending, back.

Like an Iraq-war mirror image of “Life Is Beautiful,” actor-director Roberto Benigni’s “The Tiger and the Snow” re-runs the successful structure and comic persona of the 1998 Oscar-winning film in a trippy fantasia about a poet who follows his love to hell and, in this happier ending, back. Benigni and his loyal producing-writing stable put their faith in the tried-and-true here rather than in raw originality or political controversy — which may keep critical response lukewarm to another tragic story told in a comic key but could nonetheless see very satisfying worldwide box office from Benigni aficionados, though nothing in the range of “Life.”

That said, one appreciates the independent spirit behind a second film boldly set during a war, and the graceful optimism and humor Benigni brings to his subject. Italian breakout “Life” won Benigni three Oscars and grossed $224 million worldwide. “Pinocchio,” which followed, hit paydirt only domestically; “Tiger” marks an attempt to regain acceptance in the international marketplace.

Produced inhouse by Melampo Cinematografica at a reported cost of $35 million, “Tiger” reps an indie victory over Italy’s tightly controlled public- and TV-financed production. Onshore 01 Distribution is launching the film Friday on an unprecedented 800-plus screens, repeating the blanket strategy that worked so well domestically with “Pinocchio,” which should easily pull the film to the top of the Italian B.O. chart in a lackluster season.

The presence of French star Jean Reno in a major role will give additional muscle to the Benigni-friendly Gallic market.

Lacking the powerful hook of the Holocaust, Benigni and Vincenzo Cerami’s screenplay skirts openly declaring itself against the invasion of Iraq, preferring to be a generic antiwar film. Whereas “Life” had obvious Nazi villains, “Tiger” carefully discriminates among Italian aid workers, aggressive American checkpoint MPs and quailing recruits.

Similarly even-handed is the presentation of the suffering of ordinary Baghdad citizens during the bombing, the havoc wreaked by Muslim kamikazes and condemnation of Saddam Hussein. This nonideological stance should keep the film’s audience reach broad, even as it disappoints more politically oriented fans.

Upfronted, instead, is the film’s central love story. Acclaimed poet Attilio De Giovanni (Benigni) is a passionate if wacky teacher who throws himself on the floor to demonstrate poetry’s impact to his students. Every night Attilio has the same funny, surreal dream that he is in his underwear getting married to a beautiful woman in front of a laughing crowd, while a traffic cop demands he move his car.

One day in Rome he attends the press conference of his Arab poet friend Fuad (Jean Reno), who is returning to his native Baghdad. It’s March 2003 and war is in the air. Suddenly, the woman from Attilio’s dream appears in the flesh, and it’s clear he’s madly in love with her. She is a literary researcher named Vittoria (Nicoletta Braschi), and she’s writing a book on Fuad.

The lovesick Attilio immediately starts pestering her for a date, and, however much she brushes him off, he simply refuses to give up. Nor does he waver when, some time later, Fuad calls him with the terrible news that Vittoria, who had come to Iraq to interview him, has been injured in the bombing and is hovering between life and death.

After the long Roman prelude, story switches into high gear. When Attilio’s naive attempts to board a plane for wartime Baghdad to see the wounded Vittoria don’t pan out, he joins the Italian Red Cross team. He palms himself off as a surgeon, with a touch of the political incorrectness that made “Life Is Beautiful” zing. Soon he’s on his way to Baghdad on a hijacked camel. Several gags later he’s at Vittoria’s bedside.

The strangely uncrowded hospital is lacking in medicine and equipment. A large portion of the film revolves, a little lamely, around the love-fueled jester’s frenzied struggle to get Vittoria oxygen, drugs, an IV feed. With touching faithfulness he stays at her bedside while armies clash and Allied missiles streak the sky. Ending is delicately handled with a neat bow to Chaplin’s “City Lights.”

In his eighth outing as star and director, Benigni shows no signs of weariness with a character he skillfully varies from film to film. The frantic laugh fest of his earlier work has given way to a more mature comedy able to incorporate serious themes within an actor’s approach to heartfelt, emotion-based directing. Playing Attilio close to the bone, he allows more autobiographical elements to surface, including his literary side.

Though as spacey as ever, Attilio is more down-to-earth than previous Benigni creations: He’s human enough to have had an adulterous fling with a fellow teacher (a kittenish Emilia Fox).

Braschi, who has producer credit on the film, is a trooper playing disheveled and unconscious in most of her scenes, though when revived she appears more magically enticing than Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy.

It takes imagination and poetic license to envision Reno as an Iraqi, but he brings humanity to the part. Reno expresses maximum respect for an undervalued Arab culture but lacks the lines to motivate Fuad’s final gesture, which seems way too gratuitous in this context.

Using a handful of sets to indicate time and place, production designer Mauro Sabatini (Danilo Donati’s longtime art director) wisely simplifies, preferring to evoke an atmosphere with a few basic strokes. Although Tunisia, where exteriors were filmed, is not a perfect double for Iraq, it works. Lensing for Benigni for the first time, d.p. Fabio Cianchetti (“The Dreamers”) adopts a similarly pared-down visual style that often recalls a fable, echoing Attilio’s childlike nature.

Favorite Benigni composer Nicola Piovani tests the story’s delicate balance with a wide-ranging musical comment that runs a gamut of emotions, at times in curious contrast to images like burning oil wells. Tom Waits, who cameos in Attilio’s wedding dream, sings his tuney number “You Can Never Hold Back” on camera.

The Tiger and the Snow

Production

A 01 Distribution release of a Melampo Cinematografica production. (International sales: Focus Features, Universal City.) Produced by Nicoletta Braschi. Executive producers, Elda Ferri, Ridha Turki. Directed by Roberto Benigni. Screenplay, Vincenzo Cerami, Benigni.

Crew

Camera (color), Fabio Cianchetti; editor, Massimo Fiocchi; music, Nicola Piovani; production designer, Maurizio Sabatini; costume designer, Louise Stjernsward; sound (Dolby Digital), Bruno Pupparo; associate producer, Gianluigi Braschi. Reviewed at Warner Bros Cinema, Rome, Oct. 4, 2005. Running time: 114 MIN.

With

Attilio De Giovanni - Roberto Benigni Vittoria - Nicoletta Braschi Fuad - Jean Reno
With: Emilia Fox, Amid Farid, Giuseppe Battiston, Andrea Renzi, Gianfranco Varetto, Chiara Pirri, Anna Pirri, Abdelhafid Metalsi, Lucia Poli, Tom Waits.

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