Because I was girded for the anticipated conundrum of Roberto Benigni’s much-commented-on “Holocaust comedy,” the first half of Life is Beautiful caught me completely by surprise. Three parts Charles Chaplin to one part Buster Keaton, Benigni’s guileless courtship fable is a latter-day screwball farce in the best sense. I remember thinking that there could be few better ways to spend a Sunday afternoon at the movies than cavorting through late 1930s Italy with Benigni’s Guido Orefice, a gawky waiter romancing his sweet principessa, a school teacher named Dora (Benigni’s real-life mate, Nicoletta Braschi). Unpretentious slapstick and unabashedly romantic imagery accompanies Benigni on that oft-revisted cinematic quest — to woo a woman already betrothed to another.
It’s to Benigni’s great credit that he somehow makes this ancient storyline seem absolutely fresh. At somewhere near the halfway mark, Guido has won Dora’s heart by creating for the two of them a nearly impenetrable fantasy world — he appropriates the real world as a prop for performance art, twisting everyday occurrences into seemingly magical coincidence. If you’re stuck in Italy circa 1939, you could do worse than hang out with Guido Orefice.
Not that you’d want to be there, of course. While both Benigni and his comic creation play-act as imperturbable optimists, they both clearly realize there’s something more sinister hanging in the air. As light as the first half of the film is, it’s chilled by carefully deployed reminders that the story is set in Italy on the brink of the defining atrocity of the 20th century — there’s an appearance by a pair of children named Benito and Adolfo, a lecture on racial purity, and the fact that this Italian Jew’s romantic rival works for the fascist government.
That much of this is played for laughs demonstrates Guido’s talent for taking the sting out of the bleakest situations. That racist lecture, for instance, is actually given by the mugging Guido, who impersonates a school inspector to get close to Dora and winds up improvising the requisite oratory on Aryan superiority for the children. It’s an expert bit of clowning (Benigni owes a debt to Chaplin’s The Great Dictator), but you can feel the pit growing in your stomach even as you giggle. Proving himself an expert manipulator, Benigni is setting his audience up for a tumble into the abyss.
“X years later,” Guido and Dora have a child named Giosue, and Guido has realized his dream of opening a bookshop. But the world around them has changed. Signs in shop windows forbid the entrance of dogs and Jews. The city is under martial law. And after an odd visit by Dora’s mother (who appears downright sinister in this context), Guido and Giosue are deported to a concentration camp. (Dora will follow behind, insisting that she travel on the same train as her husband, and doubtless unaware of what awaits her at the end of the line.)
Guido’s wheels are already turning — without a crack in his jovial exterior, he explains to his son that they’re taking a vacation, that their spaces on the train (there are no seats, of course) are reserved. Once the train arrives at the camp, Guido stubbornly continues the charade. They are contestants in a grand game, Guido tells the boy, one in which the prize is a real tank (in contrast to the toy tank that Giosue holds dear). In order to win the game, Guido says, Giosue must hide from the German officers by spending the whole day on the top row of crowded bunk beds.
By creating an imaginary facade to block out the horror of the death camp, Guido intends to save his boy from the fate that awaits all of the camp’s children and infirm — the mock “showers” that conceal the gas chambers. And by the time he has to rebut the stories the boy hears about people being burned in ovens and turned into buttons and soap, even Guido’s unflappable persona seems to be creaking under the strain.
The camp scenario takes up the bulk of the picture, and strains even Benigni’s capacity for comedy and pathos. It starts promisingly, with Benigni volunteering to “translate” the German commands barked by one Nazi officer as the rules of the fictive game he has promised little Giosue (“We play the part of the real mean guys who yell!”). Guido’s reduction of the rules of life in the camp to instructions about lollipops effectively taps the unimaginable, horrifying absurdity of such a place.
This is bleak stuff, to be sure, but Benigni’s sanitized death camp is not for a moment credible as a real setting. Because we know what we know of the Holocaust, we also know that it would be impossible for a child not to be scarred by what he sees there, no matter whether he dodges the “shower” he’s ordered to take, or spends his days hiding in a filthy barracks. In fact, the film grows almost unbearably flip as it focuses on Guido’s largely whimsical story — Benigni continues to plumb his bag of sentimental tricks, having Guido commandeer the camp’s P.A. system to send a valentine to Dora. In voiceover, the tale is described as a “fable” about a father’s love for his son, but “fantasy” would be more like it.
Is there anything wrong with that, per se? Only if you feel that it’s fundamentally disrespectful to make a film that fails to deal with the Holocaust in utmost solemnity. Some critics have complained about the tastelessness of Benigni’s premise, which singlemindedly excludes depictions of real human suffering. Perhaps it is, just a bit, tasteless — and I’d consider that a point in Benigni’s favor, since transgression has long been a way for the movies to get at the truth of an unspeakable situation. (If this film had been made as, say, a musical comedy, it might have provoked even more righteous outrage, and been proportionally more effective.) What it most certainly isn’t is insensitive.
By sidestepping violence and misery, Benigni only shows his audience the same “reality” that is revealed to little Giosue — that is, the camp that Guido allows Giosue to see. But, because his audience cannot be ignorant of the historical facts of the Holocaust, the audience’s own conception of what happened inside those walls provides the undramatized setting for the remainder of his tale. Basically, he has chosen to depict the greater fact of the Holocaust as a blank slate, onto which may be projected our own feelings about the event.
So I’m with him, in theory. But somewhere in the execution, he lost this viewer. I kept wondering how Guido could have the physical capacity to maintain his clownish routine on a starvation diet. I kept pondering the unacknowledged fates of all those other faces in the background, as Guido cheerfully explained the rules of the game to his son. And my mind kept wandering to thoughts of buttons and of soap. And without giving too much away for those of you who haven’t seen the film, I’ve got to say that the film’s climax, emotional apex, and denouement all felt baldly manipulative, manipulated, and undeserved. (Sure enough, a “real tank” rolls into camp on cue.)
Mike D’Angelo’s contortionist reading of the picture suggests that there’s some specific irony at work here, and that we really may be meant to be disturbed by the ending of the film. “An express elevator to Hell,” he calls it. Considering the concurrent voiceover exalting a father’s sacrifice for his son, I have a hard time buying this. More likely, I think, Life Is Beautiful wants to be more or less what it appears to be — an inspirational paean to the power of human will and resilience in making the unimaginable somehow survivable. Benigni’s hopeful message seems to be that life can, indeed, be made to seem beautiful, and that a father’s selfless devotion can save the life and innocence of his child, even in the context of the greatest of human catastrophes. Does it make me a realist or just a cynic if I say I don’t believe him?
Directed by Roberto Benigni
Written by Benigni and Vincenzo Cerami
Cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli
Edited by Simona Paggi
Starring Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, and Giorgio Cantarini
Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1 (should be 1.66:1?)
Italian with English subtitles