#62: Life is Beautiful [1997]

The problem with Life is Beautiful is that if you don’t like Roberto Benigni then you won’t like the film. I don’t like Roberto Benigni. A famed comedian in his home country, he directed, co-wrote and stars in this Italian film which attempts to interweave tragedy with comedy, which is never a good idea when you’re depicting the Holocaust. You see, I just don’t find his humour endearing, as he so patently strives to make it, and so instead of being a powerful ode to innocence, Life is Beautiful becomes a cute film with some interesting ideas but which indecently undermines the significance of the situation. Don’t get me wrong – this movie is by no means intending to ignore the horrors of the Holocaust; I’m saying that the approach Benigni takes is ineffective. Let me explain.

The film is split into two distinct parts, the first focusing on the efforts of protagonist Guido Orefice (Benigni) to woo school teacher Dora (played by his real life wife Nicoletta Braschi) in pre-WW2 Italy. It’s essentially Benigni’s show, demonstrating his hilarity and wit… As I said, I’m not a fan of his comedy, so it was watchable at best. Then comes a gap of five years, during which Guido and Dora have married, had a son, Giosuè (Giorgio Cantarini), and are facing strong Antisemitism what with WW2 being fully underway. Guido, his father and Giosuè are taken away to a concentration camp while Dora, who is not Jewish, pleads to be taken with them. Dora is separated from the men at the camp, so was her sacrifice worth it? Don’t ask me.
When they are taken away Guido tells his son that they are on a holiday camp he has especially arranged, in which the aim is to gain points by hiding and not crying in order to win a real life tank. Of course, the jocular manner in which Guido waives away Giosuè’s fears with explanations of ever more complicated rules serves as an irony for the cruelty and barbarism of the Nazi tyranny. By maintaining this ridiculous pretence Guido preserves his idiosyncratic personality, whilst the nameless Nazi oppressors become ‘The Guys Who Yell Really Loudly’, stripping them of humanity and purpose. This in itself is a good point well made, but what Life is Beautiful really needs is a pregnant pause, where the humour fades and the truth takes centre stage; Braschi looking out longingly from her cell window doesn’t quite cover it.
I won’t deny that Life is Beautiful is courageous in its approach to representing the Holocaust, and it’s not the first time the subject has been considered in less a than conventional manner (I’m think largely of Maus here). Unfortunately, the particular form of humour Benigni utilises cannot fit the subject manner, especially without any interval in which the suffering of the victims can be properly addressed. Still, if you’re interested in film, particularly foreign cinema, this is one to check out to practice forming your own opinion.

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