In 1994's The Monster (Il mostro), his last film to gain wide American release, the Italian writer/director/star Roberto Benigni put himself at the center of a mistaken-identity farce about a serial killer. In Life Is Beautiful (La vita e# bella), Benigni plays a wacky, high-spirited man who convinces his young son that their imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp is all an elaborate game. Maybe Benigni is aware of his potential to come off as coyly cloying and as a result chooses this sort of subject matter to cut the sweetness, or maybe he just wants to test the limits of what grim circumstance his humor can't stand up to.
In either case, it's surprising what a well-rounded tragicomedy Life Is Beautiful turned out to be. Movie clowns have often--if not always wisely--been drawn to political and social horror as a backdrop: Charles Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) beat most of the rest of the world to mocking Hitler, and Jerry Lewis set his notorious, unreleased 1972 film The Day the Clown Cried in Auschwitz. The premise of the latter work isn't altogether dissimilar to that of Life Is Beautiful--Lewis played a clown given the job of entertaining the kiddies on their way to the gas chambers.
Benigni, best known to U.S. audiences for his appearances in such Jim Jarmusch films as Down by Law (1986) and Night on Earth (1991) and as Clouseau fils in the unfortunate Son of the Pink Panther (1993), has an over-the-top, sometimes self-indulgent acting style reminiscent of Lewis at his most broad, or of Jim Carrey. As a writer and filmmaker, though, he seems to emulate the silent comedy masters such as Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
His visual approach is simple, and the settings and supporting players have the same generic, sparely furnished, historically vague quality as those in a Chaplin or Keaton film. All the world is Benigni's stage, and all the other characters merely foils. Even his most frequent co-star, Nicoletta Braschi (also his real-life wife), has the unflappable, somber loveliness of a silent clown's leading lady.
A scene near the beginning of Life Is Beautiful recalls Chaplin: Benigni, as the happy-go-lucky Jewish bumpkin Guido, is driving through the countryside with his pal Ferruccio (Sergio Bustric). They lose control of their car on a hill, at the bottom of which villagers are dutifully waiting for a fascist dignitary to pass. The people mistake Guido's frantic waving at them to get out of the way for a salute, and respond in kind.
Funny though it is, this gag is tame enough--it could have been used on Hogan's Heroes--but Benigni plunges into deeper waters. Lewis' Auschwitz movie (reportedly) took a tragic tone; Karel Kachyna's The Last Butterfly (1991), about a mime who uses his art to keep children out of the ovens, was also played as dark, brooding drama; and the low comedy of Lina Wertmuller's Seven Beauties (1976) was intended as scandalous. No one could suggest that the deceptively light atmosphere of Life Is Beautiful isn't daring.
Scripted by Benigni and Vincenzo Cerami and luminously shot by Tonino Delli Colli--also the cinematographer on Seven Beauties--the film follows Guido as he scrambles to start a bookstore in an exquisite little town in (Benigni's native) Tuscany, and to romance the beautiful schoolteacher Dora (Braschi). It's 1939 when the story begins, and fascism and anti-Semitism creep ever more pervasively into the background of Guido's wacky misadventures.
In one scene, to impress Dora, Guido poses as another dignitary who's been scheduled to give a lecture to her schoolchildren on the racial superiority of Italians. The slight, frizzy-haired fellow's clowning makes a mockery of his theme, but he succeeds in impressing her; they marry and have a son.
A few years later, he's put in the position of explaining to his boy Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini), who's no more than 5, why certain shops have signs forbidding Jews to enter. It's part of a game, he explains, in which store owners arbitrarily choose to exclude one sort of person or another. It's all in good fun; they must remember to make a sign keeping somebody or other out of their bookshop.
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Eventually, Guido and Giosue are herded onto a train and deported to a concentration camp, and Dora voluntarily joins them. Guido's improvised reinterpretations of horror into fun now become the desperate method by which he tries to keep his son alive; he convinces Giosue that everyone in the camp, inmate and guard alike, is part of a vast, whimsical role-playing competition, and that Giosue's role is to stay out of sight. Giosue is nobody's fool, though; he senses that something's not quite right in this place. So Guido must constantly trump up evidence that the game is still under way, and that they're winning.
To find Life Is Beautiful reckless and unbearable or to find it touching and inspiring are probably equally defensible positions. Either way, though, the film feels honest. Guido's stubborn refusal to acknowledge horror doesn't make him a pollyanna; rather, it makes him a partisan against horror, a partisan of imagination and freedom. The story is set up so that Guido's playfulness is a survival tactic, one that keeps him blessedly free of the pixieish cuteness that has sometimes afflicted Benigni's characters in earlier movies, especially in his American work.
While Benigni's direction is serviceably simple, there is one visually jolting scene: Wandering through the night mist of the camp, Guido is suddenly, shockingly confronted with the physical evidence of the camp's genocidal mission. It's a horrifying moment, but it's essential if we're to stick with Benigni through this movie's conceit. It amounts to an admission that it's easier to stand up to the Nazis armed only with humor if, like Benigni, you were born in 1952 or later. It's also Benigni's reassurance that he hasn't forgotten what the subject he has chosen to depict was all about, and that he still thinks life is beautiful.
Life Is Beautiful
Directed by Roberto Benigni.