Life Is Beautiful
The first half of Life Is Beautiful is so charming, and the second half such a bitter letdown, that I’m not sure what to do with it. Give the movie points for trying? Acknowledge that what Roberto Benigni is attempting — a fable about keeping love and hope alive in the midst of annihilation — is murderously hard to bring off? The first 45 minutes or so are unabashedly romantic and enjoyable, and there are extremely moving moments throughout. But the film as a whole makes very little sense.
The first section opens in Italy in 1939. We meet Guido (Benigni), a happy-go-lucky drifter with dreams of going to the city and opening a bookstore. Guido falls in love with the lovely Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni’s wife), who is engaged to a humorless Fascist goon. No matter; Guido wins her heart by sheer persistence and spontaneity. In an image so shamelessly florid it can’t help getting to you, Guido unfurls a long, long red carpet across rain-slick stairs so his beloved won’t get her feet wet. I fell for that one pretty hard. Bravissimo. Like many foreign filmmakers unencumbered by the irony of modern Americans, Benigni does this kind of stuff with a pure conviction that recalls classic Hollywood.
In a neat transition, we soon discover that Guido and Dora have married and had a little son, Giosué. By then, the shadows have begun to creep into Benigni’s fable: Italy is being overtaken by the Nazis, who soon go about rounding up all Italian Jews — including Guido and Giosué. Out of love and solidarity, Dora insists on being taken on the same train. Guido and his little boy arrive at the work camp, and that’s when the movie starts to go wrong. Guido, as you’ve probably heard, shields his boy from the horrors of the camp by pretending the whole thing is a game. The problem is, Benigni the filmmaker almost seems to believe it, too.
Should Life Is Beautiful be castigated for not being a starkly realistic treatment of the Holocaust? It never claims to be so. However, Benigni doesn’t have the temperament that would goose the movie above the level of heartwarming — and “heartwarming” and “Holocaust” just don’t go together. There are a couple of moments of horror and tragedy, but the same could be said of Patch Adams, to which this movie is an Italian brother. Cancer, madness, genocide — there’s nothing that can’t be defeated with a little laughter, a little chicken soup for the soul. When Dora hears the voice of her little boy, whom she’d feared dead, I choked up a little, but my response had nothing to do with the subject.
Could this movie have been a masterpiece? I honestly don’t know, but one way to have approached it might have been to make Guido a man whose fantasies are sometimes clearly inadequate — the bubble of his humor pops against the sharp blade of reality. Nothing much like that ever happens in Life Is Beautiful; Guido remains indomitable throughout, and I began to wish the movie had shown us that Guido had begun to go insane under the pressure of preserving his son’s innocence, coming up with ever more ridiculous rationales that even the boy sees through.
A much more honest comedy might have been about an Italian father circa 1939 who loves his son but isn’t nearly as affectionate — who even beats the boy prior to the emergence of the Nazis. Then the “game” could be about the father terrorizing the boy into staying in hiding, out of love for the boy. But Roberto Benigni isn’t the man to play such a father or to make such a movie. He has, instead, created a role and made a movie designed to win Oscars, and it certainly worked. What he hasn’t made is a movie that means much of anything. Life Is Beautiful puts the Holocaust in comforting perspective: It reassures us that there were fathers like Guido keeping their children safe, and it tells us that love will withstand even the ruthless machine of genocide. With Life Is Beautiful, the final frontier of schmaltz has been reached; perhaps now our movies and our tastes can turn once more to honesty and reality.