In 1994's The Monster (Il Mostro), Roberto Benigni's most recent film to gain wide American release, the Italian writer/director/star puts 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 just an elaborate game. Maybe Benigni is aware of his potential to come off as coyly cloying and so chose this grim subject to cut the sweetness; or maybe he just wants to test the limits of what his humor can stand up to.
In either case it's surprising what a well-rounded tragicomedy Life Is Beautiful (in Italian with English subtitles) turned out to be. Movie clowns have often (if not always wisely) been drawn to political and social horror as a backdrop: Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) beat most of the rest of the world in 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 from that of Life Is Beautiful: Lewis played a clown given the job of entertaining the kiddies on their way to the gas chamber.
Benigni, best known to American audiences for his appearances in Jim Jarmusch films such 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 silent-comedy masters such as Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
His visual approach is simple, with spare settings, and his supporting players have the same generic, historically vague quality as those in Chaplin and Keaton films. All the world is Benigni's stage, and all the other actors are mere foils. (Even his most frequent costar, Nicoletta Braschi -- also Benigni's 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, drives 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 to have been used on Hogan's Heroes. But Benigni soon plunges into deeper waters. Scripted by Benigni and Vincenzo Cerami and luminously shot by Tonino Delli Colli, also the cinematographer on Lina Wertmuller's Seven Beauties (1976), the film follows Guido as he scrambles to start a bookstore in an exquisite little town in (Benigni's native) Tuscany and as he romances the beautiful schoolteacher Dora (Braschi). The story begins in 1939; fascism and anti-Semitism creep ever more pervasively into the background of Guido's wacky adventures.
In one scene, Guido, in an effort to impress Dora, poses as a dignitary who has been scheduled to lecture 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 young son Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini) why certain shops have signs forbidding Jews to enter. It's part of a game, he says, in which store owners arbitrarily decide to exclude one sort of person or another. It's all in good fun; they must remember to make a sign keeping kangaroos or somebody or other out of their bookshop.
Eventually Guido and Giosue are herded onto a train and deported to a concentration camp, with Dora voluntarily joining them. Guido's improvised spinning of horror into fun now becomes 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 the boy's role is to stay out of sight. Giosue is nobody's fool, though; he senses that something is not quite right in this place. So Guido must constantly manufacture evidence that the game is still under way, and that their side is winning.
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Finding Life Is Beautiful either reckless and unbearable or touching and inspiring is understandable. Either way, 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 champion 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 pixyish 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 its genocidal mission. It's a horrifying moment, but an essential one if we're to stick with Benigni through this movie's conceit. In essence, the film asserts that it's probably easier to confront the Nazis armed only with humor if, like Benigni, you were born after World War II. Yet it also reassures us that he hasn't forgotten the innate seriousness of his subject matter, and that despite its sorrow, he still thinks life is beautiful.
Life Is Beautiful.
Directed by Roberto Benigni. Written by Roberto Benigni and Vincenzo Cerami. Starring Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Sergio Bustric, and Giorgio Cantarini.