Yesterday I watched the 1997 Italian film Life is Beautiful, written, directed by and starring Roberto Benigni. It may very well be the riskiest piece of cinema I have ever seen.
Of course, that deserves an explanation. It’s a Holocaust film centered around the experience of an Italian man named Guido (Benigni), his almost excessively adorable son Giosue (Joshua, in the English subtitles), and his pretty yet predictably kinda bland wife.
But if you haven’t read the description before watching, you might be tricked into thinking it is a Chaplin-esque story about mid-century, small city Italian life. The film opens in 1939, and it has hints of what’s to come – Guido accidentally drives his car through a crowd of fascist-saluting townspeople awaiting the king; a man he meets has named his children Benito and Adolph — but it’s essentially a romantic comedy in its early stages. We watch Guido, a funny and resourceful but physically unattractive waiter, try to win over schoolteacher Dora, the daughter of wealthy townspeople.
I’ll give you a hint: he gets the girl. The film fast-forwards four years as we learn that Guido and Dora have had a son. In addition, the previous hints about Guido’s vulnerability as a Jew have given way to full-out danger. Soon after the child is introduced, the whole family is deported to a death camp closely resembling Auschwitz.
This is where Life is Beautiful starts to feel strange. The first half of the film is often hilarious; the Holocaust is thousands of miles away. But once Guido and his family arrive in the camp, the grim reality of the situation sets in. We see the other Jews in Guido and Giosue’s bunkhouse disappear one by one, and Guido struggles to work every day and bring food back for his son.
But the film’s plot centers around Guido’s ability to manufacture hope in his son’s mind. He stays evasively upbeat from the moment they are deported, and he eventually devises a game in which his son acquires points by hiding and staying quiet. The prize for winning is a tank. Despite Giosue’s skepticism, Guido convinces him by repeatedly twisting the camp’s realities around – “translating” a stern German guard’s instructions into Italian, for example – and this twisting of reality is the source of some discomfort.
It’s obvious that Bergnini did not intend to trivialize the Holocaust; he has indeed said that an affirmation of the movie’s title was his only goal. But watching the film, I couldn’t help but squirm. Just a little.
The inaccuracies of the film, for one, are troubling. Not because we should expect the movie to be 100 percent factually accurate (and indeed, how is it possible to make an entirely realistic cinematic portrayal of an event in which most of its witnesses perished?), but because it downplays the dangers faced by each and every inmate of a concentration camp. There was obviously never any chance for prisoners to talk to one another over the loudspeakers at Auschwitz. Hunger and disease were far more pressing concerns in the camps than Life is Beautiful would lead one to believe.**
This isn’t to say that Life is Beautiful is not an excellent, heartrending film. It is. It just deals with exceedingly difficult subject matter. The best scene in the film occurs when Guido encounters an old acquaintance, an Italian doctor he used to exchange riddles with, now working in the camp as a doctor. The doctor recognizes him and whispers that he needs to talk urgently. Guido is restrained, but we can sense his delight – perhaps there’s a way out of hell after all. He even says to Giosue that they may get to leave early.
When Guido talks to the doctor, though, he is crestfallen to discover that he just wants his help with another riddle. The look on Guido’s face is devastating. There will be no easy escape. That message, I think, should be central to all Holocaust movies, and I’m not sure it was in Life is Beautiful.
**The factual inaccuracies do lead one to wonder how seriously this film was researched. It’s clear that they are in a death camp (in that it had gas chambers and crematoria), but the only such camps still operating at the time of the Allied liberation were Majdanek-Lublin and Auschwitz, both of which were liberated by the Soviets – NOT, as we see in the movie, by handsome, friendly Americans in Sherman tanks. I know, I know, it’s not central to the movie’s plot. Still bugged me.