In 1994's The Monster (Il mostro), his most recent film to gain wide American release, Italian writer-director-star Roberto Benigni put himself at the center of a mistaken-identity farce about a serial killer. In Life Is Beautiful (La vita e bella), Benigni plays a wacky, high-spirited man who convinces his young son that their imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp is all an elaborate game. Maybe Benigni is aware of his potential to come off as coyly cloying, and as a result chooses this sort of subject matter to cut the sweetness; or maybe he just wants to test the limits of what grim circumstance his humor can stand up to. In either case, it's surprising what a well-rounded tragicomedy Life Is Beautiful turned out to be.
Movie clowns have often--if not always wisely--been drawn to political and social horror as a backdrop: Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator beat most of the rest of the world in mocking Hitler, and Jerry Lewis set his notorious, unreleased 1972 film The Day the Clown Cried in Auschwitz. The premise of the latter work isn't altogether dissimilar from that of Life Is Beautiful--Lewis played a clown given the job of entertaining the kiddies on their way to the gas chambers.
Benigni--best known to U.S. audiences for his appearances in Jim Jarmusch films such as Down by Law and Night on Earth, and as Clouseau fils in the unfortunate Son of the Pink Panther--has an over-the-top, sometimes self-indulgent acting style reminiscent of Lewis at his most broad or of Jim Carrey. As a writer and filmmaker, though, he seems to emulate such silent comedy masters as Chaplin and Buster Keaton. His visual approach is simple, with spare settings, and his supporting players have the same generic, historically vague quality as those found in a Chaplin or Keaton film; all the world is Benigni's stage, and all the other actors serve merely as foils. (Even his most frequent co-star, Nicoletta Braschi--also Benigni's real-life wife--has the unflappable, somber loveliness of a silent clown's leading lady.)
A scene near the beginning of Life Is Beautiful recalls Chaplin: Benigni, as the happy-go-lucky Jewish bumpkin Guido, drives through the countryside with his pal Ferruccio (Sergio Bustric). They lose control of their car on a hill, at the bottom of which villagers dutifully wait for a Fascist dignitary to pass. The people mistake Guido's frantic waving at them to get out of the way for a salute and respond in kind.
Funny though it is, this gag is tame enough to have been used on TV's Hogan's Heroes. But Benigni soon plunges into deeper waters. Scripted by Benigni and Vincenzo Cerami and luminously shot by Tonino Delli Colli (also the cinematographer on Lina Wertmuller's Seven Beauties), the film follows Guido as he scrambles to start a bookstore in an exquisite little town in Tuscany, and as he romances the beautiful schoolteacher Dora (Braschi). It's 1939 when the story begins, with Fascism and anti-Semitism creeping ever more pervasively into the background of Guido's wacky adventures.
In one scene, in an effort to impress Dora, Guido poses as a dignitary who's been scheduled to lecture her schoolchildren on the racial superiority of Italians. The slight, frizzy-haired fellow's clowning makes a mockery of his theme, but he succeeds in impressing her; they marry and have a son. A few years later, he's put in the position of explaining to his young boy Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini) why certain shops have signs forbidding Jews to enter. It's part of a game, he says, in which store owners arbitrarily choose to exclude one sort of person or another. It's all in good fun; they must remember to make a sign keeping somebody or other out of their bookshop.
Eventually, Guido and Giosue are herded onto a train and deported to a concentration camp, with Dora voluntarily joining them. Guido's improvised spinning of horror into fun now becomes the desperate method by which he tries to keep his son alive; he convinces Giosue that everyone in the camp, inmate and guard alike, is part of a vast, whimsical role-playing competition, and that the boy's role is to stay out of sight. Giosue is nobody's fool, though; he senses that something is not quite right in this place. So Guido must constantly manufacture evidence that the game is still under way, and that their side is winning.
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To find Life Is Beautiful reckless and unbearable or to find it touching and inspiring are probably equally defensible positions. Either way, though, the film feels honest. Guido's stubborn refusal to acknowledge horror doesn't make him a Pollyanna; rather, it makes him a partisan against horror, a champion of imagination and freedom. The story is set up so that Guido's playfulness is a survival tactic, one that keeps him blessedly free of the pixieish cuteness that has sometimes afflicted Benigni's characters in earlier movies, especially in his American work.
While Benigni's direction is serviceably simple, there is one visually jolting scene: Wandering through the night mist of the camp, Guido is suddenly, shockingly confronted with the physical evidence of its genocidal mission. It's a horrifying moment, but an essential one if we're to stick with Benigni through this movie's conceit. In essence, the film asserts that it's probably easier to confront the Nazis armed only with humor if, like Benigni, you were born after World War II. Yet it also reassures us that he hasn't forgotten the innate seriousness of his subject matter, and that despite its grimness, he still thinks life is beautiful.
Life is Beautiful.
Directed by Roberto Benigni. Written by Benigni and Vincenzo Cerami. Starring Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Sergio Bustric, and Giorgio Cantarini. Opens Friday.