American filmgoers have not seen much of Roberto Benigni since 1999, when his Life Is Beautiful won the Oscars for best foreign-language film and best actor. That wildly original movie was ostensibly a comedy, but it was set during the Holocaust of World War II. In it, Benigni played a father who tries to keep his son's spirits up by inventing games and performance pieces using any prop he can find during their months in the Nazi death camps.

The Tiger and the Snow is based on a similar idea--but in this film Benigni discovers comedy and pathos in a different war, the one currently raging in Iraq. However, this is essentially a romantic love story in which Benigni casts himself (Woody Allen-like) as Attilio, a poet and professor who's also a love-starved divorcé harboring a passionate desire for the beautiful Vittoria (Nicoletta Braschi, aka Mrs. Roberto Benigni), ignoring the fact that she barely gives him the time of day. She's more interested in the biography she's writing about a famed Iraqi poet, Fuad (the wonderful French actor Jean Reno), who happens to be a friend to both Attilio and Vittoria.

How does Benigni get these three characters to Iraq in the spring of 2003, shortly after the American invasion and the fall of Saddam? Well, Fuad--who has lived as an exile in Paris for many years--decides he must return to his country during this volatile yet hopeful time, and Vittoria--who needs further interviews for her book--follows him to Baghdad. Back in Rome, Attilio gets a middle-of-the-night phone call from Fuad telling him that Vittoria was injured in a bomb explosion and is not expected to live. Attilio is literally incapable of accepting this prognosis, and he becomes convinced he's the only one who can save his true love. So he decides to go to Baghdad to do just that.

We're already aware of Attilio's ultra-passionate nature--in the way he has courted Vittoria, declaring his undying love for her in outpourings of poetry, and in the way he exhorts his students to live and love, to embrace words and ideas and beauty in all things. Defying the Italian and Iraqi authorities, Attilio pretends to be a Red Cross volunteer and gets to Baghdad in an alarmingly swift time. It is here that The Tiger and the Snow becomes quite odd--both visually (beginning with Attilio's solitary entrance into the besieged city) and structurally. Benigni can jump from some classic comedy shtick to a still tableau of serene beauty; he can impress us with the horrors of war, and then mine laughs out of the dangers of a minefield. The juxtapositions can be jolting.

The Tiger and the Snow is a disarming film--especially in its surprise ending--and it's stuffed full of big messages about life, death, sadness, joy and love. As a writer and director, Benigni's off-the-wall originality is striking--but sometimes he goes too far. Take, for instance, the dream sequence that opens the film and is repeated at intervals throughout. In the dream, Atillio (wearing only underwear) weds the elusive Vittoria in the ruins of a church while, next to the altar, the American singer/actor Tom Waits somnolently plays the piano and sings a ditty he wrote specifically for the film, "You Can Never Hold Back Spring." Poignant? No, just strange.

Another problem: As a performer, Benigni cannot pass up any opportunity to milk a laugh or provoke tears or drive a person crazy with his nonstop high-energy patter--and he'll do all these things all at the same time! At times, this viewer was tempted to reach into the screen and box Benigni about the head and shoulders just to make him shut up. That said, The Tiger and the Snow proves once again that the Italian whirligig named Roberto Benigni is a truly multi-talented genius who knows how to make movies with magic in them. So who cares if he gives some of us agita? He also makes us see the world as we've never seen it before.