THE ITALIAN comedian and director Roberto Benigni attempts a daring transgression in La Vita e Bella, a tragicomic fable about survival in the Holocaust. Benigni, playing Guido, a Jewish waiter in pre-war Arezzo, spends the first half of the movie getting into scrapes, twitting the town Fascists and courting a local schoolteacher (Nicoletta Braschi). Then the nightmare of Nazism impinges on the idyll: romantic slapstick abruptly gives way to the horror of a concentration camp, where Guido tries to protect his young son's innocence by pretending that the prison regimes are all part of an elaborate game.
It's difficult to underestimate the risk Benigni takes here. Comedy and the death camps will never make easy companions, and for most of the film's second half I seemed to be holding my breath in fear of some dire misjudgement by the film-makers. La Vita e Bella does touch moments of heartrending pathos, as when the little boy (played hauntingly by Giorgio Cantarini) asks his father where the other children are. "They're all hiding," is the father's desperate reply. Yet while we can't help being moved by the lengths this exhausted fantasist goes to shield his son from the truth, there are passages here that prompt our unease. The basic implausibility of his free movement around the camp, his farcical translation of German orders to the assembled inmates, the grandly romantic gesture of broadcasting a love song to his wife (who's forgotten for long stretches of the film) all provide too stark a contrast with the grim atrocities we sense in the background.
And the coating of Chaplinesque sentimentality may well set your teeth on edge. For all its flaws, however, we are left feeling only goodwill towards Benigni, not just for the foolhardy courage of his film, but for his exuberant humanity.
A little of his spirit would have been appreciated amid the scrum of this week's other films. Don't Go Breaking My Heart is an earnest Anglo- American comedy that's puppyishly eager to please, despite having one of the worst scores in recent movie memory. Jenny Seagrove plays a grieving widow whose dentist (Charles Dance) resorts to the creepy stratagem of hypnotising her into falling in love with him.
His scheme goes awry when she cute-meets an American sports therapist (Anthony Edwards), who's coaching her teenage son in the 1,500 metres. Will hypnotism or true love win the day? Britcom writing and some wobbly direction betray a basic lack of confidence, but ER heart-throb Edwards (the other one) provides a likeable presence.
Life-affirming nonsense, Part One: Jack Frost stars Michael Keaton as a rock musician who dies in a car accident, then comes back to life as a snowman. In this guise he gets to bond with the young son (Joseph Cross) whom he neglected in favour of his career. I suppose we ought to be used to Hollywood infantilism, but I watched in slack-jawed amazement as this tale of parental redemption kept topping its own inanity. Worst of the year so far, but it would be unwise to make predictions, with the Robin Williams vehicle Patch Adams heading inexorably towards a cinema near you.
Life-affirming nonsense, Part Two: Billy Crystal does another of his feisty underdog routines as Sammy, the lowly talent agent of My Giant. Desperate for a break, he fetches up in Romania and accidentally discovers a 7ft 6in giant named Max (Gheorghe Muresan).
Hotfooting it back to Hollywood, Sammy tries to get his outsize client a part in a Steven Seagal picture - some agent! - and then reunite him with his long-lost teenage love. Like Jack Frost, it jerks shamelessly on the heart-strings as Crystal decides that professional kudos is no match for personal fulfilment - a roundabout means for him to smile through tears and say, "Please love me". How needy can you get?
I Think I Do is a so-so ensemble comedy about a bunch of college friends reuniting for a wedding. Alexis Arquette plays Bob, still smarting from his unrequited love for ex-room-mate Brendan (Christian Maelan) who's now, it seems, an ex-heterosexual, too. Around them a perky and unfamiliar cast negotiates a route through the wedding party's in-laws and in-tows. Writer/ director Brian Sloan shows intermittent flair for nifty social observation; his directing, however, is pretty leaden, and he relies too much on the slender charm of Arquette to carry the picture. It passes the time agreeably, all the same.
For a dose of authentic Seventies scuzziness, you might try Jack Hill's Switchblade Sisters, a low-budget gang flick whose sets look flimsier than a Carlton game show. Lace (Robbie Lee), the top moll, befriends wildcat Maggie (Joanne Nail), and together their girl gang take on a rival outfit led by the attractively named Crabs (Chase Newhart); then romantic jealousy sets the two girls at daggers, and hell breaks loose. Aficionados of bad taste, rotten acting and the outer limits of Seventies fashion will enjoy it, though the rape scenes and knife-fights will ensure that its following remains strictly underground.
Finally, a French valentine from 1938. Marcel Carne's Hotel du Nord combines the smokily poetic with the shabbily mundane: despairing lovers (Annabella and Jean-Pierre Aumont) flub a suicide pact, while Parisian lowlife - prostitutes, pimps, fugitives - mills unconcernedly around. Carne's wistful fatalism is a perfect match for Alexandre Trauner's lovingly detailed set design.
All films on release from tomorrow