Life Is Beautiful is the drama every comic probably wishes he had made. This Italian "concentration-camp comedy" believes that the powers of humor and joy are strong enough to overcome any adversity, even that of the Nazi Holocaust. Even though we know this isn''t true, the fact of the matter is that humor and joy sure can''t hurt in the face of overwhelming odds.
Proclaiming that "Life Is Beautiful" is kind of like saying that the glass is half full; it''s an attitudinal choice to side with the positive because the only other option is the inevitability of negativism and defeat. It is within this life-affirming context that the controversy surrounding co-writer, director, and star Roberto Benigni''s movie needs to be examined.
A high-profile award winner, Life Is Beautiful won the Grand Jury prize at this year''s Cannes Film Festival, eight Donatellos (Italian Oscars), and many other prestigious awards. [Last week, the film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Film and Best Director, plus others.] It has also come under attack for its soft-focus, unrealistic presentation of life in the death camps. Both the popular acclaim and the alarmist criticism are deserved. Roberto Benigni is a clown, and an irrepressible one at that. In this defining work of his career, he uses those unique clowning skills and comic imagination to create not a documentary portrait of the consequences of the Nazi Final Solution but a testament to the magnitude of the human spirit. In so doing, Benigni obscures most of the harsh realities and logical consequences of the situation, and though there is a degree to which such narrative license is unforgivable, we must also appreciate that by privileging history''s impermeability, we are also limiting its possibilities for inciting the poetic imagination.
What Benigni does in Life Is Beautiful is use the Holocaust as a backdrop for telling a heartfelt story about a father who protects his son from the gas chambers by the use of the only weapons at his command: his quick imagination, outlandish buffoonery, and scrappy determination. In the real camps such tactics would not have had a chance in hell. Within the fiction of the movie, we are witnesses to the plight of a lone man whistling bravely in the dark. In addition to its questionable subject matter, another difficulty the film has to surmount is the way its mood abruptly turns on a dime after the first hour.
Opening in 1939, we see signs everywhere of fascist rule, but the story focuses on the young man Guido (Benigni) and his arrival in the Tuscan town of Arezzo to seek his fortune as a waiter who wants to open a bookshop, and the meeting and wooing of his future bride Dora (Benigni''s wife, Nicoletta Braschi, who has starred in most of his films). The first hour is a slapstick paradise. Benigni is an inheritor of the Chaplinesque tradition and Life Is Beautiful owes obvious debts to The Great Dictator. In such films as Jim Jarmusch''s Down by Law and Night on Earth and Benigni''s own Johnny Stecchino and The Monster, I never was terribly moved by the effusively inexhaustive talents of Italy''s favorite comedic son. However, I must say that I was unexpectedly beguiled by Benigni''s clownish powers to amuse during Life Is Beautiful''s thoroughly anti-authoritarian first hour. Then, within just a few moments, he wins the girl, they glide through a doorway and it''s suddenly five years later on the eve of their son''s fifth birthday, and we discover that Guido is Jewish and he and his son are being herded off to the camps, in which location the movie spends its second hour.
Guido''s tactics for promoting his son''s survival are most unlikely to have been successful in the real world (if we dare call concentration camps the real world), and the film''s harshest truths are depicted offscreen or in implied tropes, and some of the worst Nazi commandant behavior is only a few clapboards removed from "Hogan''s Heroes." Still, the movie manages to incorporate all these things into a moving yet unsentimental story about the beauty of maintaining one''s wits while stumbling blindly in the insane no man''s land that lies beyond wit''s end. cw