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Life Is Beautiful

Directed by Roberto Benigni

Cast: Roberto Benigni, Nicholetta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini

What a marvellous idea for a story: a father determines to hide from his son the horror of their situation in a Nazi concentration camp by devising an elaborate, improvised game to keep the boy entertained, and help explain away the severity of their experiences. Their fellow inmates are cast as other contestants, constantly scoring and losing points by how they react to the tribulations visited on them by their captors, as they all compete for a grand prize. There would surely be lots of room here for dissolving the traditional boundaries between comedy and tragedy, for producing some black satire and farce, for laughing in the face of adversity. Yes, it must have looked good on paper. Alas, it doesn’t quite work in actuality.




I really wanted to like this film, honest. Like I say, what a great idea, plus I’m a Benigni fan: apart from his Italian films, his turns in Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law and Night on Earth are dearly cherished. The trouble is, he does tend to do the same turn all the time - he’s a brilliant comic actor - but here his rambunctious innocent abroad grates garishly, and is at odds with and not equal to the subject matter.
The film begins with the Candide-like Guido arriving in Arezzo in 1938 to seek his fortune, and after a series of slapstick, accidental encounters with beautiful schoolteacher Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), then betrothed to a local Fascist official, falling in love with and wooing her. Cut to five years later, and they are married and have a son, Joshua. But now the occasional bigotries the Jewish Guido once ignored have become enshrined in Racial Laws. Guido and Joshua are deported to an (unspecified) concentration camp, and Dora, though a gentile, insists on going with them. The film is not so much divided into two halves, as the characters’ lives are. Guido and Dora remain the same, it’s just that in the second half they find themselves in an extreme situation, which forces them to react accordingly. Indeed, Guido is already unknowingly rehearsing how he will shield his son in the camp, when Joshua’s inquiry as to why signs outside shops read ‘No Dogs or Jews’ is met with the riposte that people can put any signs they like outside their shops about animals or people. “‘No Zebras or Chinese’ I saw the other day.” “But we don't have a sign outside our shop,” counters Joshua. “Very well, do you want one? What animals do you not like? Spiders? OK, ‘No Spiders or Visigoths’. I hate those Visigoths.”
Where the movie falls down for me is not, as might seem the most obvious objection, that warm-hearted slapstick as an antidote to the Holocaust offends sensitivities or sensibilities. Rather it is because this central conceit of the power of the imagination to overcome dire circumstances would have been much more successful if we had been shown more of the horror of the camp for it to work against. That would have really been testing it. It is generally a good idea to be able to laugh in the face of the unthinkable, but here we don’t get enough of the unthinkable to think it was unthinkable. Visually, the camp looks like exactly what it is, a film set. And we get no sense of the immense strain carrying on such a pretence would undoubtedly have been for Guido. Benigni has called his film ‘a fable’, and said he didn’t want audiences to look for realism in it. But still, a little more would have helped. Sure, we don’t need to be told yet again that the camps were tragic. We already know this. But nor do we need to be told that they were absurd. We already know this, too. What would have been interesting to explore is that they were tragic precisely because the perpetrators couldn’t see the absurdity. We need to see more of what they actually did, in order to see if putting a clown’s red nose on the face of authority, a tradition Benigni inherits from the Commedia del’Arte via Dario Fo, really works in all situations.
In my experience, when imagination comes up against no imagination, no imagination usually wins, at least in the short to medium term, unless imagination gets out altogether rather than just goes on. This is because no imagination is invariably more concerned about and adept at using the existing power structures to reinforce itself, and to create new ones of its own. And what else was the Holocaust, except a failure of imaginative sympathy on a grand scale (unless your imagination is ethically comfortable with genocide)? There is a passage in Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man where he describes looking around the camp at the other prisoners during morning reveille and thinking: ‘What if all this were nothing but a joke? This cannot be true...’ Trouble is, it was. And the high suicide rate among survivors, sometimes years later, particularly those who tried to make some sense of it creatively (Paul Celan, Levi himself), would tend to indicate that the whole thing wasn’t merely a bad few years at the office. It was no game.
This said, there are some good moments here, mostly from the earlier part of the film. The scene where Benigni lectures a roomful of primary school children on the racial superiority of Italians, using his own body as an illustration, is hilarious. It is him doing what he does best. And Guido’s dealings with interminable Italian bureaucracy will ring true for anyone who has ever lived there. The satire can be sharp too, in places, if a little heavy-handed. We get an Italian woman deprecating the German education system, for posing maths problems to six year olds like how much money the state will save in a year if all the epileptics, cripples and mental defectives are eliminated - not because the question is morally questionable, but because it involves the use of algebra, or multiplication. We also get a doctor who Guido exchanged riddles with pre-war, while working as a waiter. The doc turns up in the camp, on their side, and tells Guido he wants to see him secretly about something very important. Guido thinks it’s a way out, but the doctor only wants his help in solving another riddle. So obsessive is he that he only sees what he wants to see. Like most first rate comedians, Benigni is here deadly serious. It is these characters, the ones who would pride themselves on being serious, who aren’t at all.
There is, however, a slightly ingratiating tone to the whole proceedings, like being offered sweets and lemonade by a doting, naively cockeyed-optimistic maiden auntie. The ending, especially, when Guido’s much heralded first prize of a real tank actually rolls into the camp and stops in front of Joshua, is embarrassingly nauseating. We know about the subversive value of comedy in the face of atrocious and repressive political systems, most notably from the Eastern European and South American magic realists. But this film ultimately winds up merely sentimentalising the Holocaust.
Yes, life is beautiful. But it is also quite ugly betimes. No more so, I’d imagine, than in concentration camps. It would have been a difficult trick to pull off, but a little more of the ugliness, for the laughter to triumph over or even contend with, and this would have been a very great film indeed.

First published in Film Ireland













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