LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (La Vita รจ Bella)

(director/writer: Roberto Benigni; screenwriter: Vincenzo Cerami; cinematographer: Tonino Delli Colli; editor: Simmona Paggi; cast: Roberto Benigni (Guido), Nicoletta Braschi (Dora), Giorgio Cantarini (Giosue), Giustino Durano (Uncle), Sergio Bustric (Ferruccio), Horst Buchholz (Dr. Lessing); Runtime: 116; Miramax Films; 1998-Italy)
“Benigni’s unique film contributes in a small way to our understanding the affects of the Holocaust.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

There is no question that one has to be careful in not offending the victims and their families when making a comedy about the Holocaust. That proves to be no problem here, as Benigni went to some Jewish organizations prior to shooting the film and got their blessings for this project. Besides, I don’t think there are any sacred subjects that can’t be touched by the movies. Ultimately, it is the quality of the film itself that counts. And, if there is another reason for not disapproving offhand of the film’s comic handling of this horrific context, then let’s bring up Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Though, not directly a film about the Holocaust; nevertheless, it was a light comedic parody of “The Fuehrer.” It was considered by many not only to be an appropriate comical Nazi film, but one of the all-time great films by the AFI.

Benigni’s unique film contributes in a small way to our understanding the affects of the Holocaust. What he doesn’t make absolutely clear, is how great a part the Italian Fascists also played in the “Final Solution.” They were not joking around about killing Jews. The proof is the large number of Italian Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. A much better film on this subject, that unfailingly tells about the Italian culpability in the Holocaust, is The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1971). It stayed tuned in to what was happening to a particular wealthy Jewish family in Italy, in a very believable way.

Life is Beautiful is the line Trotsky said before he was about to be assassinated, which serves as the film’s title.

What Benigni offers for Nazi atrocities is for the most part the mildly anti-septic kind. It reminded me of the Hogan’s Heroes TV series, where the Nazis are pictured as cartoon buffoons more than the real evil force they represented.

Having a horse painted green, marked as a Jewish horse, makes for a colorful scene and a wonderful segue to the elopement for Guido (Benigni) and Dora (Braschi), but in no way begins to symbolize or explore the deep rooted hatred that would lead to a government policy of genocide. Benigni uses this serious subject matter to work in his Charlie Chaplin-like routines, while following a story line that will try not to offend anyone; probably, not even the Nazis. Benigni calls this story a fable, giving him an excuse to invent what he wants for the film. But the Holocaust was no fable and therefore any attempt to make it a fable, is already a whitewash. But through his comic ability, at least, he is able to reach many who wouldn’t see such a film with such a dreary theme.

What Benigni does that is positive, is tell how insane the world’s prejudice against the Jews has been. Even if that were all this film would accomplish, that would be plenty. But I believe Benigni does accomplish more. Benigni does it by distorting history until, in the end, he does show the horror and tragedy of the Holocaust; but, in his own inimical way, giving us his own reading into the tragedy. Which is fair enough. But because of his limited aim, the film is also limited in its scope.

In the first part of the film, if you did not know that Benigni’s Guido was Jewish, you certainly couldn’t tell. He just seemed like he was an eccentric Italian. So, in that sense this film, in a round-about way, is erasing that stereotyped prejudice some people might still have about Jews being so different from those who are non-Jews.

I was not offended by seeing comedy routines take place in a concentration camp. I also was not as touched as I should have been with the gravity of the situation, due to Benigni’s comic antics.

The autobiography by the Italian chemist and former concentration camp survivor, Primo Levi, “I Survived Auschwitz,” shows in more glaring detail what it was like in those camps. That book touched me even more than the truest film to date that I saw about the Holocaust, Shoah, did. After you read that book, there can be no illusions about what it means to be interred in such a camp. Though the Italian Jews had it easier than the others brought to the camp, mainly because they came there pretty near the end of the war and therefore were not subjected to long torturous years of suffering; nevertheless, it was still a place where the survivors looked like skeletons…not as healthy as they do in this film.

The film is made up of two parts, each with a very different feel to it. The first part consists of lushly created sets as it tells of the clownish, hyper-antics of Guido. He is an Italian country boy coming to a Tuscan city in a car without brakes, where he is mistaken for the Italian king. He whizzes by a crowd awaiting the king, while holding his arm out accidentally in a Nazi salute to keep the crowd away. This is in 1939. For most of this part of the film we don’t even know if he is Jewish, until we see the green horse and see the sign on his bookstore saying this is a Jewish place. He seems to be in some denial mode of what is really going on around him.

The director pulls out his vaudeville routine of slapstick jokes, which probably never go out of style since the audience where I watched the film howled with uncontrollable laughter at all the corny bits. It left me to wonder why I can’t muster even a laugh. There must be something funny about this physical humor; after all, there is a long line of vaudeville comedians who made people laugh for generations doing those same shticks. I guess, this kind of comedy is just not my cup of tea; and, if others find it funny and because of it find the film endearing, then it is just a question of differing tastes. Though, quite frankly, I did think most of the bits were embarrassingly crass. For instance, those contrived scenes where he keeps bumping into his future wife, the switching of hats scene, and the egg-in-the-face routine. I found these to be especially tedious, since I find his brand of energetic comedy to rely more on his good timing than him being outright funny. But, I also, must say, the first part of the film was easy to watch, it seemed to have a smooth and even flow to it.

Guido immediately finds romance with the school teacher, Dora (who is his real-life wife). It’s too bad she can’t act, but then again this is basically a one-man show, so really she just becomes another one of his foils. It’s much like a leading lady in a Marx Bros. movie is used. Guido’s romance is complicated by Dora’s engagement to a local fascist bureaucrat, which gives Guido a chance to pull every string in our hearts, as he goes about winning her love from her buffoon-like fascist lover. This material is shamelessly old hat, it is only effusive because the star is so frenetic and nimble and manipulative onscreen. But there were also some clever bits like his speech, though not original it still hit the mark. Guido pretended to be a school official giving a talk on racial superiority to elementary students where Dora teaches, using his body as an example of all his superior fascist parts; such as, his belly button, which is a good fascist one. Guido at the time, is working for his uncle as a waiter.

When the scene changes from the greenhouse Guido enters with Dora after their elopement and it is now 1945 and he is happily married to her, the tragedy of their situation finally hits home as Fascism is in its last days. Part two of the film turns grim. The loving father of a 5-year-old is arrested and along with his son, they are taken cattle-style by train to the concentration camp. Guido’s wife who is not Jewish is not arrested, but she insists on going to the camp with them. In order for the father to allay the child’s fears, he says it’s all a game and whoever scores 1,000 points will win a real tank. This prize is valuable to the kid whose favorite possession at home is his toy tank. This game idea may work for as long as a train ride from Italy to Germany, but it is not possible for it to work inside the camp. In any case, the camp they were in, seemed more as if it were a coal mine than a death camp and Guido was stuck with a bad coal miner’s job. The Jews in the camp looked so well fed, that it was hard to believe that they were in a concentration camp.

The kid was perky and wide-eyed and intelligently precocious, just right for the part. The only other person who caught my attention in a multi-dimensional performance, where you could at least find some variable expressions on their face, was Horst Buchholz as a Nazi doctor who once was waited on by Guido in his uncle’s restaurant. He is now a doctor in the camp and is insensitive to Guido’s new position in life, but still showed enough cognition for him to save his life by making him a waiter in the camp. Everyone else said their lines in a flat monotone voice that projected stilted acting and because of that, almost made a mockery out of their roles. Naturally the comedy routines did not work inside the camp, except for the bit where Guido translates the rules of the camp for the German guards.He makes it seem to the kid that what he is reading are the rules for the game they are playing, as he explains that the guards are only acting mean because they are part of the game. No one laughed in the audience, but this was funny in a way that is not laugh-out-loud funny. Some slapstick was tried, such as Guido’s comically exaggerated goose-stepping walk, but that got no laughs from the audience.

The emphasis for this part of the film became on this game Guido was playing for his kid’s sake. Guido’s love was so great for him, that he would do anything to save his life. Audiences could relate to that, and that cleverly became the focal and selling point of the film. That is primarily why this film won an Oscar for best foreign film, its comedy alone would not have been enough.

The film, to its ever-lasting credit, was able to clearly depict Jews as human beings not as objects to be reduced to soap or buttons. They were more human than the Nazis, who because of their inhumanity have disqualified themselves from being considered a civilized regime.

Where I think Life is Beautiful succeeded most is being a film that inadvertently, without probably really being fully aware of what it was doing, showed how unprepared the Jews were for this tragedy by being in a state of denial. After WW11, the rallying motto of the surviving Jews from the Holocaust was “Never Again.” And what was learned, is to be vigilant and not be in a state of denial about prejudice ever again. As unbelievable as it may seem Life is Beautiful, somehow or other, caught an interesting aspect of the Holocaust, with an original take on how passive the Jews were. That is something few films really make a major point of, for one reason or another.

Most Italian Jews stayed put in their home country until the moment was too late for them to leave, never believing that the absurd extermination philosophy of the Nazis could be taken seriously. Guido, at this time, is in the bourgeoisie social strata not wanting to give up on his country; while, at the same time frame, in the same place, Primo Levi was an Italian Resistance fighter. He was later captured and sent to a concentration camp.

Did the film do enough to show the horrors of genocide? For some people it evidently did enough to leave them beguiled by the improbable mix of comedy and the Holocaust. The uniqueness and likability of this film, is that Benigni exploits his comic talents to take advantage of a very difficult situation by using comedy as a weapon. But this is most definitely an example of the rewriting of history. It is seeing the Holocaust as if it could almost be perceived as comical and not quite real, as if it was a fable. That would assume the audience was fully aware of what happened in the camps, and would not have to rely on this film for details. It is only by the very end of the film, that there is a realization that something terrible has happened and a tear could be shed. This does a disservice to how history and the victims look at it, and it fails to recognize how little people not directly involved with the Holocaust actually know about it. It is a mistake to assume a vast audience is aware of the Holocaust.

There is a reason why films are popular, and that reason is that people want to see what they like onscreen. They as a rule, do not like to think about things that are unpleasant to them. This film has deftly and arbitrarily accomplished that by skimming the surface off all the horrible things. By not showing how horrible their actual plight was this film can be viewed as primarily a very personal film about a father’s love for his family and his great sacrifice for them, rather than a Holocaust film, per se.

That the world is still filled with hatred, filled with other genocide campaigns and not filled with enough people throughout the world with enough courage to put a stop to this attitude is as plain as day. I still think that most of the world is at a low stage of the evolutionary scale and ready to do a Nazi-style thing all over, if given the chance. Just check out the recent Serbian-Kosovo conflict for affirmation that ethnic cleansing has not gone away with the end of Nazism.

So what can a film like this really do to educate people, since it would be absurd to think that one can make such a film to be only entertaining? Probably all it can do is show what really happened and it doesn’t matter if its method is drama, comedy, or even a musical, as long as it is meaningful. Even though this film struck me as a rather thin Holocaust story, it is still a worthwhile film for those who don’t want or can’t handle the heavier stuff. They will find, if they look hard enough and look past what Miramax promoted for its own purposes so it could win the Oscar, a film that is more complex than it appears at first glance. But they will also find that it is a film that still makes it evident, that the world still is in denial of what really happened and can only look at the Holocaust in a rather superficial way. There is still a tinge of world guilt about the Holocaust and because of that, the world in its state of collective guilt will honor this film to appease its own conscience. It will do so even if the film has shown that it cannot open up both its eyes to see how real the Holocaust was and prefers to see the Holocaust through carefully filtered glasses. But, I guess, we should thank Benigni for at least opening up one eye, and letting us see that both his take on the Holocaust and most of the world’s take on the Holocaust, is still bonded by such a denial of what really happened. This is the same mistake the Italian Jews made when they denied the obvious, what was right in front of their noses, until it was too late for them to react.