Life is Beautiful
review by Greg Vasich
Roberto Benignis 1997 Italian release Life Is Beautiful (La Vita e Bella) tackles about the riskiest subject matter imaginable. The film is a Holocaust comedy; a concept so seemingly oxymoronic that it is impressive Benigni makes it work at all. The movies first half is a treat to watch and laugh with as Benigni effectively uses humor to make a mockery of risingracism in wartime Italy. However, when the setting shifts to a Nazi concentration camp, the unrealistic portrayal of the characters experiences there keeps the film from entirely succeeding. It creates pathos through its story of a father desperately attempting to protect his son from the surroundings, but weakens the effect by blatantly soft-pedaling the
concentration camp experience. As a result, the film spoils its humorous intentions by stretching the truth to an uncomfortable degree.
The story follows the caprices of Guido Orefice (Benigni), an Italian Jew, as he woos and marries a Christian woman named Dora (Nicoletta Braschi). They have a son, Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini), and open a small bookstore, living their lives as normally as possible under growing racial oppression. The Nazis eventually come for Guido, Giosue, and Guidos uncle (Giustino Durano), placing them on train bound for a concentration camp. Dora insists that they take her as well, to which the strangely obliging Nazis agree. Once in the camp, only Guido and Giosue remain together; Dora goes with the other womenwhile Guidos uncle is deemed unfit to work and sent with the other elderly to die in the gas chambers. Attempting to protect his son from knowledge of the horrors surrounding him, Guido tells him all of the prisoners are playing a game, with the Nazi guards simply referees.
The film opens with Guido and another man driving down a hill and through a field in gorgeous Italian countryside after the brakes have gone out on their car, finally coming to a stop near a farm, where Guido meets Dora as she falls out of a barn and into his arms. When she tells him a wasp has just stung her, he exploits his opportune position to suck the venom out of her thigh, explaining to her the great danger of wasp venom. Guido maintains his zestful spontaneity throughout the film, displaying a clear awareness of the beauties and joys of life. He continues to randomly encounter Dora, each time actingwith the same creativity and joyful charm and begins to win her affections. In one scene, Guido enters the school where Dora teaches, posing as an inspector speaking to the students on the superiority of the Aryan race. Guido makes a complete mockery of the idea, stripping down to his underwear to show off his superior physique, emphasizing the perfect shape of his ear lobes and his bellybutton that is so well tied it cannot come undone. The hilarious scene provides a refreshing reminder that those ideologies of Aryan superiority were not only evil but also ridiculous and stupid.
When the setting shifts to the concentration camp, Guido uses his charm and wit to keep up his sons spirits within a hopeless environment intended to crush them. His strength is admirable, and a scene where he inaccurately translates the commands of a Nazi officer, relaying them as the rules of a game is simultaneously humorous and heartfelt. However as their stay in the camp continues the films appeal starts to slip, as its departures from reality begin to tone down the harshness of the camps environment. Of course, many Italian Jews suffered greatly outside the concentration camps, being imprisoned or even executed for their beliefs. While the film does portray Guido and his family as victims of racial harassment while outside that camp, Benigni makes the decision to not have those characters face oppression as extreme as some experienced. The humor of the opening half works, because while we know that Guido and his family could have had it worse, their experience seems plausible. But the film loses its charm in the second half when it sheds that plausibility in favor of a series of
In one particular instance, Guido hides Giosue in a wheelbarrow while he and the other prisoners march out to work, only to find an unmanned microphone along the way. He seizes the opportunity to tell his wife, along with the rest of the camp, how much he loves her and thinks about her, allowing Giosue to speak to her too. This continues until the mean guys who
yell, as Guido calls them, come for them, and they have to run and hide. The potential poignancy of this scene is undercut by all of its impossibilities. Hiding his son in a wheelbarrow, sneaking away from the rest of the workers, and using that microphone are all so ridiculous that they distract from the action itself. The film also neglects to show us how Guido and his son escape the mean guys precisely because anything they would have to do would be even more contrived and ludicrous than their previous actions. The movie shows the viewer a fantasy concentration camp where a good attitude and quick wit can overcome an oppressive and lethal system. That glossing over of evil is too great an obstacle to appreciating Guidos indefatigable strength and joy in life.
Of course, almost all movies require a certain suspension of disbelief in order to fully enjoy them, and its easy to see that Life Is Beautiful has its heart in the right place. Other comedies have certainly been set in tragic, even war torn environments. Robert Altmans MASH comes to mind, but instead of downplaying the gruesomeness of a military hospital, that films characters live absurd adventures in the midst of it, trying to cope in any way possible. But Guidos experience could not exist inside an actual camp and Benigni knows this, consciously presenting an alternate reality to fit his story. I cannot say I found the film entirely unenjoyable, and I certainly cannot say that others will not enjoy it, because many people clearly have. Benignis effort is legitimate and heartfelt, but by forsaking reality in this setting I feel he undermines the combination of humor and poignancy he seeks to display. So while Life is Beautiful introduces the question of whether or not a successful comedy can be set in a concentration camp, it ultimately, in my opinion, leaves that question unanswered.