The dream factory: Tears and joy from death-camp film

When American critics first saw Roberto Benigni's runaway Italian hit La Vita e bella at last year's Cannes film festival, many of them squirmed with distaste at the odd juxtaposition of slapstick comedy in a Nazi concentration camp. They were genuinely surprised when the film won second prize, viewing the choice as a lapse in taste by the festival jury.

Even the sight of Benigni prostrating himself bodily before Martin Scorsese, acting as jury president, failed to amuse them much. So much for critics. Far from offending anybody, the film was singled out for special praise by Jewish groups around the world, who saw it as a heartwarming fable about the triumph of the human spirit under the gravest duress. From the old Roman ghetto to Jerusalem, Benigni was greeted by Holocaust survivors with tears and joy: not bad for a rubber-faced comic from Tuscany who is not even Jewish.

And now the film, which is released in Britain this week, has achieved another minor miracle. At a time when subtitled foreign films are scarcely given the time of day in newspaper arts sections, La Vita is on track to become the most successful foreign-language film released in the United States. Under the title Life is Beautiful, it is steaming towards the record set just a couple of years ago by another touching Italian comedy, Il Postino. With Oscar season just around the corner and at least one nomination - for best foreign film - hotly expected, its audience seems assured for weeks, if not months, to come.

Interestingly, La Vita is not the only foreign title to be pulling in the crowds. A Brazilian film called Central Station, the story of an embittered old woman and a boy from the slums who travel together in search of the boy's father, has been drawing rave reviews and respectable audiences; as has The Celebration, a Danish film depicting an emotionally devastating family reunion. Does this herald a revival in foreign-language cinema after 25 years or more in the doldrums?

The answer is both yes and no. For a long time, the prevailing wisdom was that the only audiences for foreign films were the same who lined up to see the latest Godard, or Antonioni, or Kurosawa back in the 1960s: an ever-aging crowd of ex-students from the hippie era unable to transmit their enthusiasm to the next generation.

According to Bob Laemmle, scion of the family that founded Universal Studios and owner of a string of art houses in Los Angeles, foreign films became less interesting to audiences as the techniques and themes of the French New Wave and other European schools were taken up by American directors. "The reason to see something with subtitles became less compelling because the same kind of cinema was being produced by the US independent sector," Laemmle said. "And many of the foreign directors who did manage to get noticed ended up coming to Hollywood."

What brought foreign cinema back to the fore was the emergence of Miramax, the most successful of the independent companies, now owned by Disney. Not only did Miramax exercise its talent for picking winners and backing them with savvy marketing campaigns; it pushed them out into the open by telling cinema owners that they could only exhibit big American hits like Pulp Fiction or Good Will Hunting on condition that they show a Miramax foreign-language film too. That was how Il Postino first got exposure, later backed up by an extraordinarily energetic Oscars campaign. It also guaranteed the success of revivals, such as Miramax's reissue of Bunuel's Belle de Jour which proved more successful in 1995 than the film's original release in 1967.

But the marketing efforts of Miramax and other specialist distributors cannot hide the dearth of critical and media interest in foreign titles. A generation ago, newspapers and magazines were full of articles and interviews with foreign actors and directors, but no more. Even winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes is no guarantee of a US release. When Underground, Emir Kusturica's magisterial allegory of the break-up of Yugoslavia, came to the United States a couple of years ago, it was given just one paragraph in the New York Times and disappeared within days. A Bergman or Antonioni probably wouldn't find a distributor at all these days.

Benigni's film is thus as much an exception to the rule as the herald of a new trend. Because of its controversial subject matter, it has attracted unusually extensive press coverage. Because of the intense interest of a particular group - American Jews - it has found a ready-made audience to build on. All of which is well and good since it deserves to be seen. But if you think its success heralds an explosion of Iranian or Malian or even mainstream European cinema on American screens, don't hold your breath.