Not that there's anything wrong with a Holocaust comedy. . . . Indeed this sometimes-magical film from Italian comic star Roberto Benigni not only won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, but has been celebrated in Israel too. Benigni plays a concentration camp inmate who tries to disguise the surrounding brutality by pretending to his young son that the whole business is an elaborate game.
Life is Beautiful
directed by Roberto Benigni
starring Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi
starts Friday at the Harvard Exit
The first half of the film is actually a charming, genocide-free romp, as the unsinkable Guido stumbles through a fairy-tale Tuscan town, fraught with out-of-control cars, eggs dropping on heads, figures of authority in cartoonish rages, and pratfalls that send him toppling into the arms of Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), a local schoolteacher.
Guido's comical innocence serves to artlessly subvert the fascism overtaking his country. Craving a closer peek at Dora, he impersonates a government official scheduled to inspect her school. After stolidly "inspecting," he discovers he is also supposed to deliver a lecture to the children on the topic of Aryan racial superiority. Yanking his ears, wagging his clownish face, asking the children to note the clear "superiority" of his features, Guido induces a wave of giggles.
The world seems to provide Guido with magical coincidences, and he in turn makes a wonder out of the ordinary. His ability to portray reality as responding to his own power of imagination becomes the central theme of the film's second half. After Guido and Dora spend their first night together, a dissolve brings us several years later in time, the couple now married with a young boy. Then we're suddenly at the train station where Guido and his son are being shipped off by the fascists.
From here, the movie becomes increasingly abstract and monochrome. The concentration camp looks like an elegant, largely empty brick villa; its residents are mute and indistinguishable. Where Tuscany seemed to sing along with Guido, the camp is void of humor except for what he, increasingly desperate, can generate.
Guido seems to comprehend everything instantly—unlike the historical Jews, who had no idea what to believe—and shields his son from the truth from the moment they are lined up at the train. While the conceit shows promise early on—Guido "translating" the barked orders of a Nazi for his son ("Don't ask for lollipops. You won't get any!")—it eventually devolves into preposterous antics of the Bill Murray variety, such as Guido commandeering the PA system.
The film makes no pretense to realism, but by presenting such a sanitized, fairy-tale version of the concentration camp, Benigni's film never really confronts the true absurdity of the Final Solution, characterized by Primo Levi's shell-shocked reflection inside Auschwitz: "What if all this were nothing but a joke? This cannot be true." Guido's "game" is ultimately no more grave than the quest to keep your kid entertained during a long car ride.