The unbearable lightness of Benigni

Roberto Benigni's comic fable about one family's struggle to survive in a Nazi concentration camp is in offensively poor taste.

Published October 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

The very idea of a movie comedy whose second hour is set in a concentration camp sounds like something the late Terry Southern might have come up with at his wildest -- as the ultimate satirical example of Hollywood's combination of crassness and high-mindedness. But "Life Is Beautiful" isn't a Hollywood movie. It's an Italian one that earned its director, star and co-writer Roberto Benigni, the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival. That Benigni does not treat the extermination of Italian Jews as a laughing matter is beside the point. The point, I think, is the sheer callous inappropriateness of comedy existing within the physical reality of the camps -- even the imagined reality of a movie.

It's surely no accident that the best nondocumentary films about Nazi persecution -- Louis Malle's "Lacombe, Lucien," Vittorio De Sica's "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis," Paul Mazursky's "Enemies, A Love Story," Costa-Gavras' "Music Box," Agnieszka Holland's "Europa, Europa" -- have not depicted the slaughter of the Jews. That's not a lack of nerve on the filmmakers' part, but an acknowledgment that Hitler's Final Solution defeats the imagination. It's significant that the exception, the one good film set (at least partly) in the camps, "Schindler's List," was a true story. Even so, it fell upon Spielberg to make dozens of deliberate choices -- choices of where to place the camera, choices of how much to show us -- to avoid becoming merely manipulative, to give the camps their due as historical fact. The difficulty of what he was doing, and the magnitude of what he accomplished, seem summed up by the scene where Schindler and Stern -- his Jewish accountant, who was a prisoner at Plaszow -- try to discuss what's happening to Jews without referring directly to murder: Schindler, in frustration, asks, "Do we have to invent a whole new language?" Stern answers, "I think so."

Inventing a new language doesn't interest Roberto Benigni. His acclaim has come from the way he has worked as an archivist to preserve the largely abandoned film language of slapstick comedy. During the first half of "Life Is Beautiful," he's on familiar, and safe, ground. In that hour the movie uses the traditional slapstick setup of the put-upon little guy, Benigni's Guido, getting himself in hot water with big, bullying authority figures. Here, those big bullies happen to be Fascists. Guido works as a waiter at the local hotel (its plush art deco setting is a nod to the Italian "white telephone" movies of the Fascist era) but dreams of opening his own bookstore. The setting is the Italian town of Arezzo in 1939 (shortly after Mussolini, who had signed a military pact with Hitler, started to adopt Nazi policies of racial purity). Guido can't get the signature of the local Fascist leader he needs to open his bookstore, and Dora (Benigni's wife and frequent co-star Nicoletta Braschi), the schoolteacher he's in love with, happens to be the head Fascist's fiancie.

Benigni is more admirable for his dedication to the film comedy he loves than he is as an exemplar of that tradition. He's an adequate physical comic, though he lacks a coherent persona, seeming too canny for the scrapes Guido keeps walking into. Benigni also lacks the effortless precision of the great physical clowns, and the manic spark beneath their surface calm. The funniest gags in Keaton or Chaplin or Mack Sennett two-reelers feel at first unexpected, and then inevitable. Benigni lays out the gags so we see them coming. When he accepts eggs as payment for helping out on a farm, it's only a matter of time before they end up on somebody's head. But obviousness doesn't equal offensiveness, and for an hour or so, "Life Is Beautiful" is nothing more than uninspired bits and worked-up whimsy.

You know you're in for it, though, when a guest at a hotel reception starts talking about a mathematical problem where schoolchildren have to work out how much money Germany would save by eliminating the elderly and the mentally and physically handicapped. The mere mention of racial purity is jarring enough in the midst of farce, but that scene is nothing next to what the movie becomes when it shifts to the death camps.

It's four years later. Guido and Dora have married and have a 4-year-old son, Giosui (Giorgio Cantarini). Guido has opened his bookstore, though he has to endure constant harassment by Fascist officials. When Guido and Giosui are deported to the camps, Dora (who is gentile) insists on being sent with them. Arriving at the camps, Guido comes up with a plan to save his son's life and to shield him from the horrors around him. He tells Giosui that this is a game, that the first one to accumulate 1,000 points will win and that first prize is an actual tank (the boy loves tanks). Anything that threatens to break in on this fantasy is explained away by Guido as part of the game. When Giosui tells him he has learned that little kids are gassed, for instance, Guido laughingly tells his son it's a lie others told him to get him to drop out of the game.

Benigni barely takes notice that anyone's life is at stake, other than Guido's and Giosui's. It's most evident in the scene where the two arrive at the camp. A German officer marches into the barracks and asks for someone who knows German to translate the rules of the camp into Italian. Guido, who doesn't speak a word of German, volunteers. Instead of the rules of the barracks, he spouts out the rules of the "game" he's told Giosui they're playing. Guido's nonsense mocks the barking stiffness of the German officer, and little Giosui reacts with wide-eyed, open-mouthed delight. But we also see the faces of the other men in the barracks, the fear of the new arrivals and the haggard look of the veterans. Those faces aren't used as a contrast or a contradiction -- both the visual and dramatic focus of the scene is the interplay between Guido and Giosui. And there's no way of escaping that, in the context of those other faces, Guido's unending, hardy exhortations are the grossest insensitivity.

"Life Is Beautiful" is about Guido's attempts to keep that reality from his son; our being charmed by it depends on Benigni's ability to keep it from the audience. He shows us old men disrobing in preparation for the showers. He shows us Dora and the other women sorting the piles of clothes afterward. And then it's right back to his charming comic fable. The horrors of the camps become the familiar heart-tugging moments of melodrama. Just how far Benigni will go to get us choked up -- and how far he'll leave common sense behind -- becomes clear when Guido briefly commandeers the camp's public address system to issue his customary greeting to Dora ("Buon giorno, principessa!" -- Good morning, princess!) and then to put Giosui on. We see Braschi's weary Madonna eyes tearing up as she hears the voice of the husband and son that, as far as she knows, are dead. But why would Guido put himself and his son at risk this way? Especially since it has become necessary to hide the boy, because the order has gone out to gas the children. The only possible explanation for the scene is that it exists solely to affect us.

"Life Is Beautiful" has been the subject of great controversy, both in Italy (where it swept that country's equivalent of the Oscars) and at the film festivals where it has played. Miramax, which is releasing the film in the United States, has attempted a preemptive strike by including, in the press material, a brief essay by Andrew Stille, author of "Benevolence and Betrayal," the story of five Italian Jewish families under Fascism. Without alluding to the controversy, Stille mounts a defense. "Obviously," he writes, "the concentration camp that Benigni describes in no way approximates the horror of the actual camps. But the film is not striving for straightforward realism." That's too easy: Benigni isn't even trying for straightforward realism. And any treatment of the camps that attempts to dodge the singular and irreducible fact of them hasn't reckoned with its subject. The enormity and inexplicability of what happened there cannot even be acknowledged within a winsome comic fable. Stille's conclusion, that "it is about the power of love, humor and imagination in the face of tragedy and death," suggests the grotesque folly of this film -- the attempt to give a heartwarming, life-affirming cast to an event that exists outside of human meaning.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

MORE FROM Charles Taylor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------