The prospect of making a comic fable about the Holocaust sounds treacherous, to say the least. And the risks involved are part of what makes this Italian tale such a sweet miracle of moviemaking. With Life Is Beautiful,
Roberto Benigni—writer, director and star—defies remarkable odds in asserting the power of imagination in the face of incomprehensible horror. Playing a Holocaust victim who wields his wit as a satirical weapon, and as a shield to protect his young son from the trauma, Benigni locates that line in the heart where tears of laughter and sorrow merge. Life Is Beautiful was voted the audience favorite at film festivals in Toronto, Vancouver and Cannes. It is one of those rare subtitled pictures that should get Oscar nominations in the major categories—this year’s II Postino.
The story falls into two parts. The first half is a dizzy romantic farce. Like Charlie Chaplin with a surreal spritz of Fellini, Benigni clowns his way through Mussolini’s Italy in the role of Guido, a Jewish waiter in Tuscany. With slapstick sleightof-hand, he courts Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, the director’s wife), wooing her away from a rich dolt of a fiancé. Meanwhile, like a court jester pushing his luck, he ridicules fascism at every opportunity. For a while, the movie plays like an antic one-man show, sugared with a tad too much whimsy. But the first ominous note of tragedy—the appearance of a horse painted green and covered with anti-Semitic slogans—changes everything. All the harmless frivolity leading up to it suddenly seems fragile.
Cut to several years later. Guido owns a bookstore and is married to Dora. Without warning, he and their five-year-old son, Giosué (Giorgio Cantarini), are shipped to a death camp. Dora joins them voluntarily. Guido frantically improvises to protect his son, persuading him that the whole concentration camp ordeal is an elaborate game: the boy who does the best job of hiding from the loud men in uniforms and putting
up with the hardships will win the prize.
There are some priceless moments— notably a scene in which he “translates” the shouted orders of a German guard for the boy’s benefit, turning them into a series of rules about lollipops and snacks. But Benigni never makes light of the Holocaust, only of the fascist logic that goes into it. And, paradoxically, by playing a character who “denies” the Holocaust, he reaffirms its reality.
Some may find the bittersweet redemption of the movie’s end too sentimental. But Benigni mixes audacity and compassion with a depth of conviction that Hollywood could never concoct. He earns his right to be a crowd-pleaser. Also, it is worth noting that he took his title from Leon Trotsky, who wrote he could not help thinking that “life is beautiful” even as he waited in a bunker for Stalin’s assassins to kill him. With this courageous, original and heartbreaking film, Benigni proves him right.
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