Dir: Roberto Benigni. It. 2005. 114mins.

Strictly for those with high schmaltz threshholds, Roberto Benigni's The Tiger And TheSnow will go down well at home, but outside of Italy it isunlikely to extend the fanbase of the madcap Tuscanactor-director.

Certainly this £30m ($36m) romance,set against the backdrop of the war in Iraq, is a more effective piece ofcinema than the well-intentioned but pointless Pinocchio (2002), which lost Benigni muchof the goodwill generated by his Oscar-sweeping Holocaust comedy Life Is Beautiful (1998).

The premise of The Tiger And The Snow - a man goes to presentday Baghdad to tend to the woman he loves, and is all but oblivious to thechaos exploding around him - comes across as a more contemporary take on the ingenu-in-hell theme of that worldwide success.

But the basslineof horror that made the Chaplinesque sentimentalityof Life Is Beautiful easier to bearis missing here. Despite some decent special effects, the war never feels real,or threatening, and the humanistic outlook (sympathetic to occupiers andoccupied alike) will be interpreted by many as fence-sitting.

The 800-screen opening in Italy on October 15 (one day late due to the cinemastrike) will translate into buoyant home box-office, potentially even superior,in the short term, to Life Is Beautiful,whose initial Italian run was less than spectacular.

Elsewhere, the film will playmidway between the peak of that Oscar winner (worldwide: $229m, of which$57m-plus came from the US) and the trough of Pinocchio (worldwide: $41.3m, with only around $3.5m from the US). Benigni's dodging of controversialissues should possibly help it in the US - not a bad thing given his last film's performancethere.

With a mid-December rollout,France is the only other territory to open before Christmas- and this could turn out to be a winning strategy for distributor Pathe, as The Tiger And The Snow is the kind of film to take in whencritical standards have been lowered by a healthy swig of Christmas spirit.

Fittingly for an adultfairytale, the film has a classic fable structure. An Italian poet, Attilio de Giovanni, (Benigni) islost in unrequited love for Vittoria (Nicoletta Braschi), who is writing the biography of Attilio's Iraqi poet friend Fuad(a convincingly Middle Eastern Jean Reno).

The true nature of theirrelationship is revealed only at the end; but we know that Attiliohas been stalking Vittoria, and an elaborate dreamsequence set in the Roman Forum - in which a grinning Tom Waits belts out aballad on the piano that will become a recurrent theme in Nicola Piovani's obtrusive soundtrack - seems to suggest that hewants to marry her. Vittoria follows Fuad to Baghdad, and when war breaks out, she is seriously injuredin a bomb attack.

When Fuadphones Attilio with the news, Attiliomoves heaven and earth to get to Iraq, eventually passing himself off with frictionlessease as a surgeon, in order to join a Red Cross mission. By the time he startsup an abandoned bus on the Bassora road and drivesunhindered into Baghdad, we know we are firmly in fantasy land. So begins Attilio's vigil over an unconscious Vittoria - and we can almost hear The Power Of Love surging away in thebackground.

Like a fairytale hero, ourRoberto is required to carry out a series of challenges to wrest his true loveback from the dead: find someone who can make glycerine, track down a glucosedrip and get an oxygen mask.

In so doing, Attilio discovers a different side of Baghdad from the TV news images: he is welcomed into locals'houses, he goes shopping in the bazaar and he watches the faithful entering aMosque.

The idea that people are thesame the world over may be a cliche, but it isrendered here with a certain grace and charm - though the message might havehad more purchase if the Baghdad scenes had been shot in situ, rather than inTunisia.

What is more difficult totake is Benigni's relentless tragic-comic jester act.True, there are some funny moments - though the best of these are classicslapstick, as when a barber's chair collapses, waking Atillioup from his cat-nap. But while in Life IsBeautiful we were made to feel that everything depended on the hero'sability to laugh in the face of tragedy, here his sleepwalking through theair-brushed mayhem all around becomes, in the end, more than a littleirritating.

The impression is onlyreinforced by the hyper- real, studio-lit photography, which sprinkles icingsugar on human suffering. When we see a romanticised Baghdad lit up by tracer fire at night, the reference to thefireworks at the end of Cinderella isno doubt deliberate. But this Disneyfication of warand its terrors backfires, draining the film of the emotional authority itwould like to claim.

Production company
Melampo Cinematagrafica

Italian distribution
01 Distribution

International sales
Focus Features

Executive producer
Elda Ferri

Nicoletta Braschi

Vincenzo Cerami
Roberto Benigni

Fabio Cianchetti

Production design
Maurizio Sabatini

Massimo Fiocchi

Nicola Piovani
Tom Waits

Main cast
Roberto Benigni
Nicoletta Braschi
Jean Reno
Emilia Fox
Giuseppe Battiston