Originally shown June 16, 2010. It’s hard to say which plot revelations “spoil” this movie and which don’t, so just assume this review contains spoilers and leave it at that.
When a guy who is described as “country X’s answer to Robin Williams” wins an Oscar, there arises a problem: that guy is going to be seen in public acting like Robin Williams. That’s how it went for Italy’s most decorated comedy actor, Roberto Benigni. It seemed charming at first when he won the Oscars for Best Actor and Best Foreign Language Film, as he climbed over seats to get to the stage and yelled “I used up all-a my English!” However, his boundless enthusiasm got a little tiring, and by the time the Saturday Night Live parody came along we were already exhausted. The media blitz had managed to obscure the fact that Benigni’s Oscar-winning film, Life Is Beautiful, is actually pretty good.
The film comes in two parts. The first half is set in 1930s Italy, where an irreverent Jewish waiter named Guido (Benigni, who also co-wrote and directed) meets the beautiful Dora (Bengini’s real-life wife Nicoletta Braschi), and is instantly enchanted with her. Dora is engaged to a high-society type, so she runs in the same circles as a lot of Italy’s fascist sympathizers, whom Guido infuriates as he tries to sweep her off her feet. The result is a warm-hearted anti-fascist comedy loaded with slapstick; take away the color and the sound and it might have been a Charlie Chaplin picture.
The second half of the movie is set six or seven years later, long enough for Guido and his “principesa” to have wed and birthed a young son. The fascists and their allies in Germany are now running the show in Italy, and they have not forgotten Guido; he and his entire family are shipped off to concentration camps. Feeling compelled to hide the unspeakable horror from his son, Guido is forced to spin a story to the boy that the entire camp experience is just a game, which children can correctly play by hiding from the guards.
On paper, that description of the movie’s second half doesn’t sound good. It sounds like a difficult movie to pull off, as Williams learned when he attempted a similar Holocaust film titled Jakob the Liar, which bombed with audiences and critics alike. At best, it sounds like a poor-taste attempt to use our 20/20 hindsight to drape an optimistic layer over the Holocaust. At worst, it sounds like The Day the Clown Cried, Jerry Lewis’s infamously unreleased film about a clown who entertains children on their way into the gas chamber.
So why does Life is Beautiful work? Because the movie’s first half perfectly sells its second half. The first half ends with a scene where Guido crashes a high-society party on a horse that has been painted white with anti-Jew and pro-fascist slogans in wild colors; he and Dora ride away on the horse to their life together. The scene is funny enough on its face, and the metaphor of the Italian elite wanting the ugly horse to be kept out of their parlor (i.e., turning a blind eye to fascism’s jackbooted tendencies) works well.
In my mind, though, that scene has a third meaning: Guido is turning a blind eye to the fascists also, for a different reason. It’s easier for him to mock them with the horse, than to believe that their hatred is real. The movie’s title is quoting Leon Trotsky, who had been exiled from his Russian homeland by Stalin and wrote…
“Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.”
…just prior to his assassination. The depth of the evil we do to one another is enough to break many a grown man; Guido would protect his son from the same breaking if he could, and instill in him whatever whimsy that made the first half of the movie possible. If you are about to die terribly, maybe it’s better to be hopeful, even to the point of being oblivious – dwelling on the horror will not make you any less dead.
That explanation does not completely absolve the movie of responsibility, though. Being oblivious is a dangerous thing, and one could argue that Guido should tell his son the truth – maybe not the whole truth, but at least some amount of it. The only reason Guido’s story works is because the boy survives the camp; if he had died, with his father’s story crumbling all around him in the last moments, wouldn’t that have been an impossibly cruel thing to do to a kid? Alternatively, the Nazis could have killed Guido first – how would the boy survive the camp alone when he doesn’t understand its true nature?
My mind tried to wrap itself around these contrary arguments while I was seeing it, but it was not easy. Another benefit of the film’s structure is that when you see it unspoiled the second half will take you completely by surprise, to the point that you just can’t think logically about what Guido is doing. I saw the movie at a critic’s screening having heard nothing about it; during the Holocaust sequences I was in a sort of stunned daze, perhaps punch-drunk. I had been promised Italy’s Mr. Comedy, but instead someone hit me over the head with a sock filled with Hitler.
I think that Guido’s behavior holds together if and only if he’s played by Roberto Benigni. I think that even other actors credited with having a childlike sense – Williams, Jim Carrey – could not have done it. This movie might not have been possible from an American studio at all, no matter how good the lead, because the performance might still have that whiff of craven marketing logic behind it. Only Bengini has the natural innocence to pull this off; only he could convince a kid that the Holocaust is a giant game, and not have it come off as offensive.*
Like many films about the Holocaust, Life is Beautiful wants to reinforce the timeless message that great evil can be undone with love. When you look at it that way, it seems like a very safe movie, both to make and to watch. However, the more you know about how movies are made and how many things can be miscalculated, the more this movie seems like an incredible risk, the proverbial filmmaking “without a net.” Benigni’s next film, a live-action adaptation of Pinocchio, is a good example: given Benigni’s deft touch with whimsy, it was supposed to be can’t-miss, but it ended up putting a bizarre and downright creepy spin on the material. If he got Pinocchio wrong, how in the world did he get the Holocaust right?
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Benigni’s Wikipedia entry claims that his father spent three years in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which takes the “only he could have played this role” argument to a whole other level.