Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos may have taken home the Palme d'Or from Cannes last spring for his drama "Eternity and a Day," but it was Italian comic Roberto Benigni who stole hearts and headlines with "Life Is Beautiful." An unlikely comedy about a father's struggle to protect his son from the horrors of the Holocaust, "Life Is Beautiful" swept the Italian version of the Oscars as well, winning eight out of 15 David di Donatello Awards -- three of which went to Benigni himself for best film, best director and best actor.
Though Benigni had already challenged people's notion of what is acceptable comic subject matter by making "The Monster" (1994), a comedy about female dismemberment, "Life Is Beautiful" has created a much greater controversy. During the press conference at Cannes, one French journalist stood up to accuse Benigni of mocking the victims of the Holocaust, declaring that he was "scandalized" by the picture. A reporter from the International Herald Tribune vocalized that she "loathed this film," and the London Guardian wrote that it is "a hopelessly inadequate memorial to the vile events of the Holocaust." And yet, in July, Israel honored Benigni, inviting him to screen the film at the Jerusalem Film Festival, where Jerusalem's mayor awarded Benigni with a special commendation for "furthering the universal understanding of Jewish history."
"Life Is Beautiful" is not, insists Benigni, a comedy about the Holocaust; it's a movie by a comedian about the Holocaust. The character he plays might horse around, but the Holocaust is never trivialized. "There's been some people, not a lot, but some people who felt in a very, very strong way, like I touched something untouchable," Benigni says. "The last thing I wanted was to hurt somebody or be offensive with the memory of the Holocaust, because I started from the opposite idea, of course. I wanted to make a beautiful movie, and especially to say something poetic."
Uncertain of what the public reaction might be, Benigni was initially frightened by his concept for the film, and he resisted it for years. "I loved immediately the idea, but I was scared, and I tried to write something different. But I could not stop thinking about this idea -- a happy man in a concentration camp."
In the film, Benigni plays the ebullient, eccentric Guido, a goofball waiter in a small town in Tuscany who falls in love with a pretty schoolteacher, Dora (played by Benigni's wife, Nicoletta Braschi). For a time, the couple live in blissful ignorance of the growing strife in Europe and the new Fascist laws in Europe, even though Guido is Jewish. When their 5-year-old son, Giosué (Giorgio Cantarini), asks why Jews and dogs aren't allowed into a pastry shop, Guido shields him from the truth, explaining that people can make whatever rules they want. He tells his son that one hardware store in town doesn't let in Spaniards or horses. And when, on Giosué's birthday, they are seized by soldiers along with other Jews and instructed to board a train, Guido tells Giosué that it is all part of his birthday surprise. "Let me on that train!" he insists. "We have reservations!"
When they are brought to a concentration camp, Guido tells Giosué that it's a game, and the goal is to be the first to amass 1,000 points. When the boy becomes increasingly unsettled, Guido warns him, "There are three cases in which you lose all your points. One: Those who cry. Two: Those who want to see their mama. Three: Those who are hungry and want a snack. Forget about it!" Humor for its own sake is never Benigni's goal here; it is his character's sole survival strategy. Guido's shenanigans are acts of resistance, and they are more touching than tickling. Guido's attempts at merriment are acts of self-sacrifice, each intended to protect his son.
Neither Jewish nor a father, it wasn't until the project was well under way that Benigni realized the idea was inspired by his own father's stories about the war. A soldier in the Italian army during World War II, Benigni's father had been taken prisoner and deported to a work camp in Germany.
"My mother, my sisters and me, a lot of time we laughed because of the way my father was telling the story. He would tell us the story in a very funny way," he recalls. "Like in my movie, my father was telling us like it was a fable. He was afraid to make us fearful. He was protecting us, like I am protecting the son in the movie, because this is the first instinct -- to protect the son."
Benigni had long since forgotten his father's stories, but they came back to him as he began working on the screenplay with Vincenzo Cerami. "In my mind, each day my father's story and face came to me, and this was really moving me. I was thinking maybe my father suggested to me this movie."
Much like Guido, Benigni's father never understood why he was imprisoned. "He didn't know why the German people were so mean with him. He couldn't understand," he recalls. "When they capture [Guido], everybody's asking, 'Why?' Guido is like a lot of Jews in Italy. They did not know they were Jewish before Fascists decided to capture them."
Though he did consult with Milan's Italian Jewish Committee, Benigni insists that the film does not purport to be an accurate account of the Holocaust. "I am a director, not a historian, and my duty is to invent stories," he says. "So I invented this completely. It's a fable, but invented from the truth."
Except for one haunting scene where, looking through a bank of fog, Guido glimpses a mound of remains, there are deliberately few reminders of the horrors of the concentration camps. "I never show [them], because we know," Benigni says. "It's enough to show a little sign. The less I show, the more you can imagine."
While Benigni says that he is the first comedian to make a film about the Holocaust, he's well aware that Charlie Chaplin preceded him by more than 50 years with his 1940 spoof on Adolf Hitler, "The Great Dictator." In fact, the number on Guido's prison uniform in "Life Is Beautiful" -- 0737 -- is a nod to Chaplin, who wore the same number in "The Great Dictator." "Charlie Chaplin has influenced everything I've ever done. Just everything," Benigni says. "[He] is the prince of each comedian in the world. Chaplin is like our Michelangelo."
Just like young Giosué, who, in his narration, speaks of the gift that his father gave him, Benigni speaks of the film as "a gift from heaven."
"Whether people feel that this is a film that should or should not have been made," he says, "at that moment of my life, this was the only thing I could make. And if I could come back, I would remake this movie. It's the thing that I love most in my life. It's the best thing I can produce."