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February 4, 2014

Divine Comedy in the Death Camps (Jul-Aug 1998)

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Darryl Tippens reviews Life is Beautiful

by Darryl Tippens
July – August, 1998

33Holocaust plots compose a rather large genre of film today, but we may safely say no one has fashioned a story that even remotely approaches the unusual tone or subject matter of Roberto Benigni’s tragicomic Life Is Beautiful (Italian with English subtitles; PG-13; Miramax).

As controversial as it is lovely, the movie attempts the impossible – and succeeds. Benigni (co-writer, actor and director) uses comedy to expose the evils of the Nazi concentration camps while also weaving an unforgettable fable of familial love.

Understandably, some critics have been outrated at the presence of humor in so tragic a story. Richard Schickel, for example, calls the film a farce that trivializes the Holocaust. Is it legitimate to employ humor in a plot so rooted in horror, especially something as unspeakably monstrous as the extermination of millions in the death camps? Before we condemn Life Is Beautiful for sacrilege, we ought to ponder the powerful and redemptive purposes to which humor can be put.

Humor is, in fact, protean and complex, able to serve vastly different purposes. Though it can trivialize, it can also serve noble purposes. Consider, for example, God’s derisive laughter directed against earthly powers who challenge divine authority (Psalm 2:4).

Humor can be profoundly subversive of institutional authority. In this case, Benigni (one of Italy’s greatest comic actors who is often compared to Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton) uses humor with devastating effect, not to trivialize, but to expose the brutality of fascism.

“Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious,” Peter Ustinov once quipped, a point close to Mark Twain’s gem: “The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow.” Benigni understands this. In his hands irony, indirection, and humor become devastating weapons wielded against one of the most concentrated forms of human iniquity.

Nicolette Braschi, Roberto BenigniThe first half of the story is pure, romantic fare, set in the magnificent hills of Tuscany. Guido (Benigni) is a buffoonish Jewish waiter, who uses humor to expose the madness of Nazi ideas of superiority. At one point he poses as a pompous school inspector, provoking hearty laughter at all pretensions of racial superiority. Guido also woos and wins Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), his pricipessa, the loveliest lady of the town. The attention to their marriage and the subsequent birth of their son Joshue (Giorgio Cantarini) momentarily distract us from the growing stranglehold of the Third Reich. Then the pastoral romance of the first half ends abruptly. Guido and his family are arrested and plunged, with shocking rapidity, into the inferno of a Nazi concentration camp.

Giorgio CantariniIn the camp, Guido devises a kind of game designed to keep Joshue, his son, hidden and alive. Guido’s immense love drives him to take increasingly risky measures to safeguard Joshue. And though his wife is segregated in a different part of the camp, Guido’s passionate devotion and ingenuit enable him to communicate with her and sustain her as well. The humor continues, but it is no longer funny. It is black, gallows humor – constantly critiquing the evil, never approving it.

This film is both romance and suspenseful melodrama, but it is also a fable of faith, hope, and love. The film dramatizes Victor Frankl’s thesis that the survivors of the concentration campus were often not the strongest nor the healthiest, but those who had the greatest sense of hope and purpose.

Benigni’s film goes one step further in suggesting that human charity is the most essential element to a meaningful life. It is love that makes life beautiful. And so in this cinematic parable we see the power of love to sustain – not everyone, we hasten to concede – but a remnant that makes a new beginning possible.

The film further suggests that redemption Love may be working invisibly in our lives. There is a loving Father-Husband who silently and secretly pours out his life so that beloved captives may go free. “Love is as strong as death,” the Bible says. This Guido demonstrates decisively.

Roberto BenigniIt is true, as some critics have pointed out, that the film tends toward sentimentality. The work shields us from the worst scenes of the death camps. Quite unlike Schindler’s List, we are spared horrific scenes of starvation or brutal executions. But must an educated audience see mountains of corpses in order to understand the drama of the death camps? Not necessarily. The unstated and the unshown haunt this story of redemption. Every perceptive viewer knows precisely what is at stake – life – precious, innocent, and human. The Italians have had a rather long tradition of showing us the proximity of the unspeakably horrific (The Inferno) and the wondrously radiant (The Paradiso). Alberto Benigni, trying his hand at the same artistic paradox, has succeeded triumphantly.

Life Is Beautiful was the first foreign-language film in almost three decades to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. The nomination was more than deserved. Such sacred wisdom and rapturous beauty seldom meet in a work of cinema, whatever the language.

Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (La Vita E Bella) Courtesy of Miramax Films. All three photos by Sergio Strizzi.Wineskins Magazine

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