Life Is Beautiful, co-written and directed by Roberto Benigni, is now the highest-grossing foreign film in U.S. history. Favorable reviews and word-of-mouth have sent audiences to it in droves. It has not only been nominated as the best foreign-language movie but is a contender for best picture in competition with the highly touted Hollywood products Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love. Playing the lead role, Benigni has won a best-actor nomination. By the time you read this, Life Is Beautiful will surely have triumphed in the foreign-language category. A singular achievement for, of all things, an Italian comedy that deals with the Holocaust.

But does it deal with the Holocaust? To be precise, is there a valid depiction of the Holocaust in this film? Stalin killed, Pol Pot killed, the bloody opportunists of what used to be Yugoslavia killed, and many of their victims suffered as much as the Jews caught in Hitler’s web. Yet the Final Solution seems to make evil reverberate in a way that no other atrocity does. Many valid reasons have been adduced -- the technological expertise in slaughter, the attempted extinction of a people whose ethics laid the moral basis for Western civilization, the nurturing of evil within a culture that gave nineteenth-century Europe Goethe, Beethoven, and Kant.

I wish to single out another reason, both for its own sake and because it is germane to the plot of Benigni’s film. Alone among the masters of evil, Hitler continues to make his fiendish case against life itself. He incited and still incites evil men to persecute "inferior" races, but he also made and still makes decent, even profound people (including Primo Levi, the great poet Paul Celan, possibly Jerzy Kosinski) so suspicious of the human race that they resort to suicide, thereby fulfilling Hitler’s wish for their destruction with their own hands. I submit that any novelist, playwright, or filmmaker who addresses the Holocaust must never use it as a sentimental device that courts our tears simply because it happens to have entrapped his hero or heroine. When consumption carries off Camille or when cancer does in Meryl Streep in One True Thing, we cry and our tears are agreeable to us. But we must wince when the Holocaust is used as a comparable dramatic ploy, for to commit such artistic cynicism is to fiddle while Rome burns. Hitler is making his case now in the hearts of the tormented and in the hearts of the progeny of the tormented.

Let’s give credit to Roberto Benigni for taking the struggle against the Nazi weapon of despair as his subject. His Jewish hero, Guido, moves to Arezzo to work in his uncle’s restaurant. Guido is a zany who improvises miniature commedia dell’arte scenarios out of the most everyday of situations. He annoys many but charms some, especially a pretty (gentile) schoolteacher, whom he woos away from a pompous Fascist bureaucrat by perpetuating a series of funny ruses that make her think that the mostly hapless Guido has life at his beck and call. The style of this part of the movie is a gentle, airy version of the sort of farce hammered out in Hollywood by the likes of Jerry Lewis and Danny Kaye. But Benigni, both as actor and director, has a lighter touch than his American counterparts. I have never really cottoned to his puppy dog friskiness, but he is at his best here, and he and his co-star, the lovely and humane Nicoletta Braschi, give us a sort of etherealized farce, if you will, that strives not for belly laughs but indulgent smiles.

Within this pleasant first half of the narrative, Benigni plants a few sinister incidents, like land mines in a verdant meadow, that warn of the miseries to come. The uncle is roughed up (off screen) by Fascist bullies; Axis-admiring schoolteachers fashion algebra problems using terms of Nazi ideology; the uncle’s horse is spattered with paint, but Guido rides that horse right into a party held to announce the engagement of his beloved to her Fascist boyfriend, and he canters off with the young woman riding pillion. What could the future hold for any hero who can create such a whirl of triumphant whimsy in the midst of a brutal regime? Well, it could hold the death camps to which Guido and his little son are consigned in the film’s second half, with the gentile wife going along voluntarily. Once again, our hero’s genius for fantastical deception comes into play when he persuades the boy that the prison is really just a roughhewn vacation resort where pluck and endurance will be rewarded with a grand prize. By keeping the spirits of his loved ones intact, he helps save their lives.

Now, given this shift from courtship to survival strategy, from romantic slapstick to historical nightmare, what stylistic modulation does director Benigni attempt, what darkening of texture, what acceleration or retarding of tempo, what change in rhythm or new incisiveness in the dialogue alerts us to the fact that the universe has been transformed for Guido and that he is now battling not just for happiness but for sanity and existence? None. No modulation, no essential stylistic shift, no fundamental darkening of tone. The concentration camp section of the film beams at us just as benevolently as the earlier episodes of amatory tomfoolery. Yes, yes, yes, I know that Benigni puts horrors before our eyes: starvation, forced labor, ultimately mass murder. But what happens to horror when it is instantaneously muffled by good taste and mild daffiness? See this movie and find out. The phoniness begins with the train ride to the concentration camp taken by father and son. Survivors have written of these rides and how they left the travelers half dead and too abject to brace themselves for the abuses to come. But Benigni and the child actor shuffle out at the terminus looking discomfited, tired, but a lot less tired looking than people who have spent a few hours on a Greyhound bus. Yet they are supposed to have spent about twelve hours standing in a crowd of packed bodies suffering clammy heat, without recourse to bathroom facilities or refreshment. What we see refutes what we’re told. Do their living quarters evince the filth that breeds despair? No, they are merely bare and dank. Do the guards exhibit that unique Nazi blend of assiduousness and brutality? Well, they bark and glower but seem no worse than the foremen of some nineteenth-century factory, and, far from efficient, are sloppy enough to leave a PA system unguarded so that Guido can cheer up his wife in the women’s quarters with a hopeful message. They even allow our hero to pass his boy off as one of the officers’ children for a free meal in staff quarters, even though the boy is clearly dressed as a prisoner. (With enemies like these, who needs friends?)

Do Guido’s fellow inmates ever show that irritation, even ferocity toward other sufferers that often grows out of confinement in tight quarters? No, but then again they are allowed virtually no distinguishing traits but simply merge into the background against which Benigni enacts his fey, smiling-through-tears routines. Is the soul-battering of enforced, meaningless labor adequately shown? We do see the hero and his fellows huffing and puffing while moving objects like anvils about, but the scenes are milked for Chaplinesque pathos, a quality clearly inadequate given the circumstances. And when it comes time to present the final enormity, the slaughter of the prisoners catalyzed by news of the Allied advance, Benigni has his masterly veteran cameraman, Tonino Delli Colli, create a blue-tinted shot of a huge heap of bodies dimly seen through mist. This gorgeous, almost Whistlerian composition epitomizes the wrong-headed achievement of this movie. It muffles horror, even aestheticizes it. Just as Guido transforms the horror of the camp into fun-and-games for the sake of his child’s mental health, so does Benigni tame horror for the sake of the viewer’s mental comfort. But what is heroic in the father is craven in the filmmaker. The Holocaust should never be comfortably conveyed. (I hope it won’t be argued that the horrors are muffled because we are seeing them from the protected boy’s point of view. In fact, the viewpoint throughout is the father’s, and we should feel the despair he fights against.)

There is one great scene. The camp doctor, Lessing, turns out to be a man who once befriended Guido because of his cleverness at posing and solving riddles. Lessing again helps and, at one point, beckons Guido aside. Is he going to whisper a plan of escape? Alas, he has only another riddle for Guido to solve. But a close-up of the doctor’s ravaged face (to think this is that same Horst Buchholz, who was the pretty juvenile of The Magnificent Seven and Tiger Bay, now magnificently aged and profoundly expressive!) reveals the true meaning of the moment: soul-sickened by the horror he himself has abetted, Lessing has taken refuge in trivia the way a dying animal buries itself in its burrow. Here, the act of muffling horror makes the horror cry louder. This is what the entire movie should have done. But what is wrong with Life Is Beautiful is the very thing that has ensured its success. By collapsing the greatest tragedy of our time into domestic pathos, it gives the audience permission to laugh and sob and applaud and, quite possibly, breathe a sigh of relief. The Holocaust? Not so special after all. One more excuse for a good cry. With Life Is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni has created the first agreeable movie about the Holocaust. This is an undeniable feat, but is it to be applauded?

Published in the 1999-03-26 issue: View Contents
Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.
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