Life Is Beautiful
Director: Robetro Benigni. Cast: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini, Giustino Durano, Horst Buchholz, Sergio Bini Bustric, Marisa Paredes. Screenplay: Vincenzo Cerami and Roberto Benigni.

Life Is Beautiful, Ó la Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, came under attack from some groups in America before it was even released this side of the Atlantic. Their dispute with Roberto Benigni's film, it seemed, was an instant rejection of the very notion that this famous Italian and, not unimportantly, non-Jewish comic actor had any business making a film about the Holocaust—especially since, in a move that can only be described as audacious, Benigni did not check his funny bone at the door when he selected such wrenching events as the backdrop for his movie. I was, as I assume most people to have been, piqued and vaguely caught off-guard by Benigni's ambitions, but to reject a film based on principle is never a good idea; even Patch Adams, if I am feeling generous, might have some chance of being un-preposterous.

I went to Benigni's film with a marginally sympathetic and a certainly curious attitude, but Life Is Beautiful left me far more disturbed when I left the theater than I was when I arrived. I want to make clear that this review requires that I mention certain developments toward the picture's end, a maneuver which I normally try hard to avoid but which I permit here for two reasons. One, the revelation I am most hesitant about disclosing was in fact less mysterious to many viewers than it was to myself, and though there are definite reasons why this "surprise" took me aback, I can also perceive (and indeed, have perceived within the testimonies of other audiences) how it could be not only sussed out, but taken as the embarking condition and statement of the film.

Second, this same revelation has to do with the film's narrative perspective, which was all in all the most troublesome aspect of Life Is Beautiful for me, and the nature of which is absolutely crucial to both my rejection of the film and to the reasons for which I cannot write it off as an utter failure or wholly misguided realization of a permissible concept. If you would like to view the film without such tip-offs as I may give here, read no further for the time being, but do please return later to this review; unsurprisingly, Life Is Beautiful is one of the more provocative pictures of the year, and I am eager for a wide and highly-inclusive debate over its merits and flaws.

Now, it should be said to start with that, particularly for its first hour, Life Is Beautiful is not really a "Holocaust comedy," as journalistic shorthand so frequently asserts. Only the slimmest, lightest shadow of what's in store for Benigni's characters hangs over the beginning of Life Is Beautiful, which instead starts out as a sweet, sentimental, and unabashedly contrived romance between Benigni's Guido and Dora, the beautiful object of his affections. The sequence that sets Life Is Beautiful quite literally into motion depicts Guido and a companion barreling down a lush Italian hillside in a car that they discover has no brakes. As the car streaks into a small, quaint township, Benigni stands up in the auto with hand outstretched to warn away pedestrians and the attendants of a town parade. I would like to note that, for all of its unconventionality elsewhere, Life Is Beautiful upholds here the universal film tenet that all car chases, cars out of control, and even hot pursuits on foot inevitably run into a parade through the streets. If an alien race were to watch humanity's movie output for information on the species, they would assume that roads are closed off and processions staged at least three times a week in every municipality of any size in every nation.

Point made. What does separate this sequence from your run of the mill "Save the Marchers!" parade-crash is that Guido's raised hand mimics precisely the stern, pointing-out posture of Hitlerian iconography. Fascism is funny from Life Is Beautiful's opening frames, and not through any pointedly satiric humor or means; Benigni merely shows us how the very image of fascist leadership is comical and absurd. Such is the perspective of much of Benigni's "send-up" of his own country's totalitarian legacies, as well as those of other countries. He means not to be overly analytical, or clever, or even mean-spirited, but merely to deflate the controlling severity and fearsome permanence of fascist surfaces and images through the sheer irreverence and exuberance of his comedy.

The approach is relatively successful, limited only in effect because the lover's-union story he tells for the first hour doesn't really need this overlay of political gesticulating. It plays like a more slapstick and vaguely more desperate version of the Il Postino romance, though the comparison is not apt insofar as the 1995 film was bent on giving a certain glimpse of reality—a credibly awkward rural postman, a fishing village you could smell—rather than the sort of rosy, shining fable that Benigni is spinning. The hotel where he finds employ as a waiter gleams as whitely as the actor's own boyish persona or the sparkling mouthful of large teeth he bares with each of his humongously open-mouthed smiles.

So, the first half of Life Is Beautiful is not going anywhere we do not expect. We know that Benigni's impish antics in the hotel will not jeopardize his job, especially since he entertains a regular German customer with his ability to solve riddles: cute trait, no? We know that a running gag by which an unseen villager drops her key to men on the sidewalk will inevitably be used to Guido's advantage as he woos Dora with a series of "magical coincidences" and charming sleights of hand. We certainly have little doubt that Dora will back out of her engagement to a haughty bore and set up house with Guido; one of our bigger hints in this direction, as if we needed any, is that actress Nicoletta Braschi is Benigni's real-life wife, and she is therefore unlikely to wind up with another man. For his part, Benigni pushes the goofiness an eensy bit far for my taste—he continues tramping and guffawing long after we have already been won over, and teeters on irritation with the unmodulated insistence of his class-clown jocularity.

So the only real objections I could have to Life Is Beautiful's opening hour are that it wasn't attempting any new projects and didn't follow any original routes in navigating Guido and Dora squarely down a lover's lane. All the project pretends to by this point is charm and sweetness, and its success in both areas is hard to deny. In fact, the reliance on hammy exuberance that Benigni manifests in all capacities (actor, co-writer, director) through the picture's first half makes the tone of Part Two as easily foreseeable as the events themselves are shocking and incongruous. In short, Guido, Dora, and their young son Giosué (Giorgio Cantarini, adorable) are corralled six years later onto a train that conveys the family to a concentration camp for Italian Jews during the thick of World War II.

Here is where Life Is Beautiful began turning off some audiences before the projector was ever turned on, for Guido resolves with typically iconoclastic spriteliness to protect his son's innocence by "explaining" their new surroundings and jobs, even their separation from Giosué's mother, as an elaborate game his parents have signed on for by which the patience and discretion of young boys is to be tested. If Giosué can dutifully follow all of Guido's orders and remain invisible and unobtrusive to the supervising (fascist) guards, he will be rewarded with a large tank. The Holocaust is turned in Guido's imagination, but clearly for Giosué's benefit, into an outsize theme park; the will to survive is translated into terms a young tyke more easily understands as a behavior evaluation with grand material payoffs.

Yes, this turn of the script is almost peerlessly bold, and authors Benigni and Vincenzo Cerami know they have set up a high-wire act which must be flawlessly executed to avoid the fall into tastelessness or, and I am not sure if this is better or worse, into trivialization, both of their film and of a historical event unmatched in the twentieth century for tragic enormity and inhuman ghastliness. What should be clear from Benigni's approach to his diverse disciplines, however, or if nothing else from the title of Life Is Beautiful, is that he means to showcase a certain attitude by which we might all live more successfully, not to deliver a gruesome or factually loyal representation of the state within concentration camps. This commitment to endorsing a mentality and not staging any reality is part of Life Is Beautiful's greatest success; it does not lose sight of its intentions, and Benigni never lapses in his spokesmanship for resilience, optimism, and an almost wildly indulged capacity to hope.

The second signal achievement of Life Is Beautiful is the wisdom and the humanity with which it recognizes that all of the victims of Europe's camps were distinct individuals of unique personality before, during, and in the too-few cases where such was applicable, after the horror of their internments. The statistics for casualties, broken families, and broken spirits during the Holocaust are so potent and haunting that artists are permanently challenged in finding any other moods besides bleak realism or mournful commemoration in documenting the events. Benigni knows that his clownish character (as Guido or as himself) would still have defined his personality even in the gravest of circumstances. Our human soul tends to determine our experience of events at least as often as the opposite is true, and Benigni adds to both the credibility and the tragedy of the Holocaust by putting a smiling, indomitable human face on even a few of the prisoners he shows us: mainly, of course, himself.

So, Life Is Beautiful is sounding pretty good, right? A two-hour fable on thin ice that somehow nails the compulsories of an opening romance, astoundingly survives an at-best improbable second-round routine, and packages its two scenarios into an overarching statement with global appeal: life, as lived anywhere and under the gravest of circumstances, is and can be beautiful. It is this last gesture, however, this proclamation of the thesis of Benigni's tall-tale as a credible statement on human life, that the picture begins to seriously overstep the bounds of its own relevance, or worthiness. For as everything about the picture has made clear, Life Is Beautiful is about the kind of airbrushed people and author-controlled life that people only live in the movies. There is nothing in Benigni's picture that truly raises the ugly head of veritable experience, of honest human suffering. A great deal of work needed to be done—and is either side-stepped completely or terribly misconceived—in order to prove why Benigni's wildly sentimental, utterly self-showcasing vision has anything to teach us about the lives we lead, or about the lives that were silenced by the regimes he topples with his belly-laughs.

My hackles started to rise at such early moments as Dora's cajoling of the fascist troops to allow her to board a camp-bound train on which she was not originally meant to travel; Benigni's capricious stepping out of the line of laborers to appropriate the camp intercom into one of his sneaky Chaplinesque schemes; and, most glaringly of all, his milking for big laughs of a scene in which he mistranslates to an entire barracks of new prisoners the instructions and warnings of the German guard. Guido here re-broadcasts the commandant's speech as the rules by which young Giosué shall win his cherished tank. I sat in the theater thinking, doesn't anyone in this barracks need to know what this hate-monger is saying? Even if Benigni intends to reveal the real story later, doesn't he run the risk of disconcerting one of the residents enough to balk visibly at his translation, and thus either expose Benigni's own artifice or mark himself as an unruly listener? Yes, Guido's decision shows great courage and love of his son, but it also takes incredible risks that are possibly injurious to a roomful of inmates whom Benigni temporarily leaves clueless; they are put in jeopardy for the mere fact that they are not his children, and accordingly not the primary party whose survival and good cheer he is intent on insuring.

The revelation of perspective of which I spoke at the beginning of this review occurs almost at the picture's end, when we come to realize that a grown up Giosué himself is telling us this story. If the identification of Giosué as narrator is not completely new, such is likely the case because the viewer read an opening, misty image of Benigni carrying his sleeping son—while, in voice over, a man describes the ensuing movie as his memory of past events—to originate from the son's consciousness, not from Guido's. As I said, many people with whom I have discussed Life Is Beautiful made that very assumption, and were thus in a position to interpret its events and especially its extreme implausibilities as the laundered recollection of a boy sheltered from horror.

I, however, thought the shot was meant (like the first contemporary cemetery scene in Saving Private Ryan) to deliberately obfuscate our knowledge of who is speaking. Even from that vantage of narrative undecidability, one might argue that the very simplicity and na´veté of Life Is Beautiful provides its own assurance that the grown-up child, not the more world-wise adult, must be the speaker of the early lines. That argument holds up far better in theory than it does against the direct experience of viewing the film. Why? Because Benigni never seems any more wise to the world than the impossibly cute tyke he totes around on his shoulder. I kept waiting for Life Is Beautiful to step aside and take one moment to indicate its grasp of the horrendous circumstances in which it takes place, or to question at least somewhat the hypothesis that creativity and laughter are enough to make endurable the most brutal of inflicted experiences.

Dishearteningly, even damnably, the one scene that Benigni and Cerami do provide as a sort of admission of the Holocaust's ravages is almost surely the movie's most sorely miscalculated and sorely rankling. The scene I describe is, in fact, that from which the prologue shot of Benigni and a sound-asleep Giosué walk through a swirling mist. When we arrive at that shot during the picture, we are watching Guido take a nighttime walk through the camp after a long day of labor—which again, potentially but still troublingly explained by Giosué's ignorance of hard facts, rarely seems to wear Guido out all that much, or even make him look gaunt or bleary or otherwise diminished. What Guido eventually encounters during this walk is a huge pile of bodies, blanched with the sick paleness of the dead, and spread in almost mosaic fashion across the entire width of the screen. Here, Benigni seems to say, is my proof that I know what I'm doing. I recognize how many people lost their lives, and I do not mean to ignore the hugeness of that catastrophe with my own emphasis on a small and fairy-talish story.

What Benigni gets wrong, though, to the point of utter idiocy, is that no moment of purported clear-sightedness can afford to pretend that the corpses accrued in a concentration camp are to be found discreetly piled in a remote corner of the terrain. Death in a labor camp was the exact opposite of something one "stumbled upon"; it was the incontrovertible fact of daily existence, even to those who themselves were blessed enough to survive. For Benigni and Cerami to stage a scene suggesting otherwise is at best highly ingenuous and at worst reprehensible; that they believe this moment to comprise the injection of "reality" they so clearly intend is false consciousness to the most loathsome possible degree. And how to understand how arranged this shot is, how cast in sheens of silver and blue into something almost...pretty?

The objection will likely be raised by at least some critics of my own criticism that the nature of these instances results directly from the success of Guido's project: Giosué was in fact shielded from the worst images and information regarding the family's predicament, and thus even in hindsight, he cannot be depended upon for an objective, appropriately harrowing view. Even if such a theory is true, however, what has Guido therefore taught Giosué through the elaborate ruse he has cooked up? The answer is, a permanently arrested understanding, a brittle and inappropriate romanticizing of events that, by the time of his adulthood, Giosué may fairly be expected to view with fuller comprehension. It is one thing to be a child in a camp and have the luxury of ignoring the evil in whose midst you live; it is quite another to narrate this story from a grown-up point of view and never have absorbed that the dreamhouse your father built you was in fact a play-acting against the most terrible of backdrops.

The final most common objection raised to my dispute with Life Is Beautiful constitutes an unyielding embrace of Benigni's open sentimentalism; the first hour makes clear, some viewers charge, that Life Is Beautiful is in no place meant to be historical, or faithful, or anything but a parable. Again, I assert, there must be some room in this story for a moment of honest truth. Guido or Giosué must acknowledge pain and fear and savage discipline—they must know that the labor-line of workers cannot be strayed from for the sake of a joke, and that the speaker-system of a camp is unlikely to be misappropriated without severe and immediate ramifications. If some space for reality is not carved out—and Life Is Beautiful makes fully clear that it both means and fails to do so—then the moral of life as "beautiful" sacrifices its aura of courage and resolve. There is little to be honored in a resolute optimism if in fact one is, as Benigni seems to be, constitutionally unable to assume any other point of view. An unrelenting optimism is as lazy and potentially as damaging as a woeful giving-over to pessimism. In other words, a jokester who does not realize he is choosing to make the best of a scenario whose awfulness he grasps is as problematic a hero as a clown-nosed doctor on whom it never dawns that impishness and irreverence are poor doctorly substitutes for learning or a medical license.

There are many moments I liked in Life Is Beautiful, and the project of this film to re-humanize the inhuman and to cast a vote for the eternal Glass Half Full is one for which I feel great admiration and sympathy. The worst and indeed the unforgivable moment in Benigni's film, however, is the moment that never arrives—the one where he makes clear that his high spirits are a matter of choice and not a dumb, undiscerning stuckness in his own twinkly overdrive. Benigni's heart is beautiful, and his film is often so, but the charm and beauty of its first hour seem, on reflection, to be a cynical, built-in device for relieving the second hour of any accountability to worldly reality or honest dramatics. In other words, whatever his success with "beauty," Benigni never comes close to showing us or acknowledging "life." He is therefore unequipped to speak credibly or fairly on the issue. It is no accident that Roberto Benigni is as winsome and gangly as Dorothy's scarecrow; there can be no doubting his heart or, to some degree, his courage, but there's too much straw here where his brain should be. C


Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Roberto Benigni
Best Actor: Roberto Benigni
Best Original Screenplay: Vincenzo Cerami & Roberto Benigni
Best Foreign Language Film
Best Film Editing: Simona Paggi
Best Original Score: Nicola Piovani

Other Awards:
Cannes Film Festival: Grand Jury Prize (runner-up for Best Picture)
Screen Actors Guild Awards: Best Actor (Benigni)
National Board of Review: Special Achievement in Filmmaking (Benigni)
European Film Awards: Best Picture; Best Actor (Benigni)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Actor (Benigni)
César Awards (French Oscars): Best Foreign Language Film
Satellite Awards: Best Adapted Screenplay

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