LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL
Directed by Roberto Benigni
Written by Benigni and Vincenzo Cerami
With Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi and Giorgio Cantarini
Distributed by Miramax
(Warning: spoilers ahead)
Writing about Gillo Pontecorvo's KAPO in early 60s CAHIERS DU CINEMA, Jacques Rivette suggested that the man who decided to move the camera in order to provide a prettier shot of a corpse in one scene deserved the utmost contempt. I haven't seen KAPO, but I can honestly say that the man (I wonder if it was Benigni or one of the Weinstein brothers?) who decided to end LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL with a grotesquely upbeat family reunion, accompanied by a hideous sub-John Williams score that jumps in the listener's ear and shouts "YOU MUST BE MOVED!!!!!!!", deserves the same amount of contempt.
When I first read reviews of LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL at Cannes last spring (where it won the Grand Jury Prize), I thought the idea of a comedy about the Holocaust was a rather dubious one, but I didn't entirely write it off. For many people, Adorno's remark that "there can be no poetry after Auschwitz" has served as a battering ram against formally conventional art about the Holocaust. For a much larger number of people, SCHINDLER'S LIST resolved all questions about how the Holocaust should be represented. As someone who doesn't fall into either camp, I don't necessarily see anything inherently wrong with a 3-act narrative about the Holocaust, an optimistic one, or even a comic one. However, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL is a shining example of the risks and pitfalls that await anyone who treats this subject.
The first half hour of LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL could be taking place at any time in the second quarter of the 20th century, which suggests that Benigni may want audiences to go into LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL expecting another light comedy in the vein of his previous films. (For that matter, the trailer is noteworthy for the amount of time it spends avoiding its true subject matter.) Benigni plays Guido, an endearingly bumbling Jewish waiter (as usual, his persona owes an enormous debt to Chaplin) in a Tuscan town successfully attempting to woo Gentile schoolteacher Dora (Nicoletta Braschi). The fact that Guido, Dora and their son (Giorgio Cantarini) are living under fascism is only gradually brought to our attention. Many of the early, painfully unfunny comic scenes drag, but they're necessary to set up the film's final half. Guido and Dora's marriage seems happy, and he realizes his dream of owning a bookstore. Guido even struggles valiantly to shield his son from the realities of Italian fascism; when the two pass a shop with a sign that says "no Jews or dogs," he claims that there's nothing anti-Semitic about it. Why, just the other day he passed a sign the other day that banned Chinese and kangaroos! In fact, he suggests putting up a sign in his own shop banning spiders and Visigoths.
One is never quite sure why Guido acts this way. Is he in denial himself, unable to process the full horror of the world around him, or is he simply trying to protect his son from a seemingly momentary ugliness? In any event, he and his son (as well as Dora, who turns herself in voluntarily) are soon deported to a concentration camp. Here, his attempts to protect his son take a bizarre turn, as he turns the humiliations of camp life into an improvised "game," where the winner tries to maintain his dignity in order to accumulate 1,000 points in order to win a tank. Indeed, Benigni acts as though the entire camp is in on the game, at one point telling his son the "rules" in the guise of translating a German officer's instructions.
As an allegory about denial, the metaphor of the game has some merit, although much of this section relies over and over on one repeated motif: the huge - and ever-growing - discrepancy between the game and reality. Unfortunately, the film partakes of much the same denial as Benigni. Its portrait of camp life is rather sanitized - considering that the film is rated PG-13, how could it not be? - and once Guido's death takes place offscreen, this evasiveness starts to feel like an inability to confront the full horror of the Holocaust. I'm not suggesting that Benigni should have filled the screen with gore - graphic portrayals of violence almost always carry the possibility that some audience members will get off on them - but that he's simply not a skilled enough director to bring enough terror or dread to the film. A director like Michael Haneke or François Ozon, who can make the threat of violence palpable without showing much of it onscreen, would have done a much better job with it. (Although I'd hate to see what they'd do with the first half's comedy.) However, this evasion isn't the reason why I hate this film; it merely suggests, along with the sentimental treatment of Dora, an overall lack of the rigor that must be brought to any art about the Holocaust.
For its first 125 minutes, I had no serious qualms against LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL. I didn't particularly like it, and much of it struck me as sloppy and badly paced, but I didn't yet have any moral reservations. Then the Allied troops arrive. Although Guido is dead, his son has survived and when rescued by a G.I. in a tank, he even thinks he's won the game. Eventually he's reunited with Dora, who also survived the camp. Cue aforementioned hideous music. Cue tears (for someone, anyway.) Cue end credits.
The above may not seem particularly grotesque on paper, but on film, it sent my jaw flying beneath the Angelika's basement floor and into the Houston Street sewers. Its optimism feels facile and wholly unearned. Benigni's sentimentality often recalls Chaplin at his worst, but this scene could have been inspired by the worst moments of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. (And Benigni certainly lacks the redeeming factor of Chaplin or Spielberg's talent.) Turning a story about the Holocaust into a reassuring "celebration of the human spirit" requires a great deal of delicacy. It's not a task to be taken lightly. As a serious grappling with the depths of human depravity, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL is rather unconvincing.
Here's another quote from Rivette: "The role of a work of art is to plunge people into horror. If the artist has a role, it is to confront people...with this horror, this feeling that one has when one learns about the death of someone one loves." As a general rule about art, I don't think this statement has much validity; when it comes to art about the Holocaust, I think it has plenty. Making an optimistic film about the Holocaust responsibly requires that one give the utmost attention to its horrors, to the myriad number of excellent reasons it provided to be pessimistic. LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL accomplishes none of this; despite its "politically incorrect" premise of treating the Holocaust comically, it eventually turns out to be a conventional feelgood movie. Its optimism and humanism conceal a deeper cynicism, one that's willing to mine any subject for Oscar-bait. (A darker and more irreverent LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL almost certainly would have been a better film, but I doubt it would receive a prize at Cannes or the attention of Miramax.) Life is indeed beautiful; LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL is extraordinarily ugly.