Life Is Beautiful

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Roberto Benigni

REVIEWED: 11-09-98

The idea of a comedy set against the backdrop of the Holocaust begs the question: Are there subjects too dark to be dealt with comedically? Perhaps there are, but humor is one of the ways we deal with them. The grimmest of national tragedies inevitably triggers a backwash of sick jokes, the vileness of which increases in proportion to the seriousness of the incident. Humor is a salve and a leveler; it also helps shape an understanding of events that are otherwise beyond comprehension. In the early years of World War II, Charlie Chaplin and Ernst Lubitsch didn't make grim dramas as a clarion call to the world about the Nazis. They made The Great Dictator and To Be or Not to Be, knowing full well the power of ridicule and the appeal of humane wit.

For that reason, it's hard to agree with the reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic who've denounced Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful (La Vita é Bella) solely on the basis of its premise. Since it won the Grand Prix this year at Cannes, Life Is Beautiful has been tagged as "a comedy about the Holocaust," which isn't entirely accurate. It's actually a movie about a comic character who uses his wit--and his wits--to survive, and as such it follows in the tradition of the Chaplin and Lubitsch films, as well as Lina Wertmuller's devastating Seven Beauties, which it resembles somewhat in structure. If Benigni doesn't always sidestep the maudlin pitfalls inherent in his premise, he still hasn't made the movie everyone feared--a repeat of the infamous Jerry Lewis gas-chamber opus The Day the Clown Cried.

Life Is Beautiful opens in 1939 with Benigni as Guido, a slightly less manic version of the motor-mouthed wildmen he played in Johnny Stecchino and Night on Earth. An Italian Jew and a newcomer to a Tuscan town, Guido promptly incurs the wrath of a local fascist official and literally collides with the official's girlfriend, the radiant schoolteacher Dora (Nicoletta Braschi). He becomes a waiter at the Grand Hotel, he woos the pretty teacher, and life is so sunny it's possible to overlook the instances of increasing intolerance--a horse painted with ethnic slurs, a school official's speech about racial purity.

Several years pass. Guido and Dora have a young son, Giosué (Giorgio Cantarini), and Guido maintains a small bookshop. But fascist rule can no longer be ignored. Dora returns home one afternoon to find her husband and son are being shipped to a concentration camp. She begs to be placed on the train with her family, and is obliged. To keep up his son's morale, Guido seizes upon a desperate gambit: He convinces the boy that the camp and its horrors are part of an elaborate game, the object of which is to accumulate enough points to win a tank. As the Nazis step up the rate of extermination, Guido struggles to keep his son in the game.

Aided by master craftsmen--including the great cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, who photographed Seven Beauties, and production designer Danilo Donati--Benigni gives the movie's first half the airy, sumptuous elegance of a musical. The early scenes are so beautifully stylized that when the setting shifts to the stark, oppressive camp, we share the characters' dread. Benigni, who cowrote the script as well as directed, sketches the horrors of the camp as humanely as possible without denying the truth. A simple shot of men undressing for the showers with wrenching fastidiousness makes its point without melodrama or exploitation. Nor are the fascists made entirely generic villains--a kindly hotel customer (Horst Buchholz in a fine cameo) stands for all the seemingly irreproachable citizens who went with the program.

As director and writer, Benigni is more interested in the leaps of imaginative daring and denial that allowed men like Guido to function than in the mechanics of genocide. That's in bold contrast to the majority of recent films about the Holocaust, which unwittingly wind up commemorating the ruthless capability of the Nazis rather than the suffering and endurance of the concentration camp inmates. The lack of characterization of the other prisoners is a glaring flaw, but the warmth of Benigni's own character keeps us aware of the weight of all those vanishing lives--even though Guido is capable of acting without concern for anyone but his son, as when he translates a German guard's strict rules of camp conduct into nonsense game instructions.

Not that Benigni is above mawkish sentiment. In a sappy, manipulative scene, Guido and Giosué commandeer the camp's intercom to deliver a message to Dora; as the sequence yanks at your heartstrings, all you can wonder is why Guido would risk his son's life so foolishly. (On this point I agree with Salon's reviewer, who found the film as a whole stupefyingly offensive.) And as winning a presence as Benigni is, with his rubbery horse face, pinwheeling eyes, and effusive bray, his indefatigable cheer makes it hard for us to see how Guido is affected by the death and doom all around him.

Yet Life Is Beautiful is affecting because of Roberto Benigni's clowning and humor, not despite it. He doesn't permit himself a big breakdown scene or a didactic thesis speech like Chaplin's in The Great Dictator (although, to be fair, Chaplin made his film even before the U.S. got involved in World War II). Benigni's triumph-of-the-spirit moment--a gallant wink and a smile--is tellingly small: We don't fully comprehend its significance until later. But the individuality of his comic persona gives us an inkling, on a modest human scale, of the incomprehensible magnitude of the overall loss. Life Is Beautiful may seem light compared to more ponderous films on the subject, but in this case light doesn't mean insubstantial.

--Jim Ridley

Full Length Reviews
Life Is Beautiful
Life Is Beautiful

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Life Is Beautiful

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