Of love and hatred
Racial hatred and violence are brought to the fore with the release this week of Life is Beautiful.
By Andrew Worsdale
Hate has always been a powerful driving force for movie narratives, whether it’s the supposedly morally correct vigilante hatred of Dirty Harry’s “Feeling lucky, punk?”; Ralph Fiennes's diabolically loathsome Krakow Nazi Commandant, Amon Goeth, teetering on the brink of racial madness in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List; or Malcolm McDowell’s droog, Alex, who chooses violence and hatred as his form of self-expression in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. The release this week of Life is Beautiful and American History X brings racial hatred and violence to the celluloid forefront yet again.
Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, which he stars in, co-wrote and directed, has been attacked in some circles for supposedly mocking the Holocaust, but in fact the opposite is true. He takes the subject matter very seriously, delivering a film that is almost unbearably touching.
The movie is like two films in one - the first half light as soufflé, the equivalent of the kind of silly romantic Italian farces we saw in the 1970s; the second half poignant and powerful. Benigni acknowledges these differences in the opening voice-over of the picture where the young boy, now grown up, reflects on the story saying: “This is like a fable, there is sorrow, but there is also happiness and laughter.”
It starts out in a typically breezy way with Benigni as Guido, a naive guy who arrives in a small Tuscan town with his poet buddy Ferrucio (Sergio Bustric). He falls in love with a young school teacher, Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni’s wife and co-star in most of his films), but she is already engaged to the local Fascist official who Guido has had several confrontations with. A fairy tale romance ensues with Guido using coincidence and comic pranks to his romantic advantage.
In a dazzling and seamless transition we are transported six years ahead and the couple are happily married with a young son, Giosue (an enchanting Giorgio Cantarini). World War II is in its final days and Jewish Italian families like Guido’s are the subject of constant persecution. Guido is determined to shield his son from the brutal racism surrounding their lives. It all comes to a head, however, when he and the kid are herded on to a train and sent off to a concentration camp. Dora, a gentile, puts herself on the same train out of her love for her family.
The idea for the film came to Benigni when he read a line attributed to Leon Trotsky. Trotsky was trapped in a bunker, waiting for Stalin’s apparatchiks to knock him off. He wrote that despite the horror of his fate he still thought “life is beautiful”. Says Benigni: “I believe that laughter saves us, it forces us to consider the other side of things, the surreal, the funny side. Being able to imagine prevents us from being reduced to ashes, from being crushed like twigs. It gives us the strength to survive the endless night.”
Although the first half of the film is too light and crazy in comparison to the wrenching poignancy and dark humour of the latter half, it is nevertheless a major accomplishment and Benigni’s Academy Award for best actor must have been as much for his achievement as co-writer and director. As a performer he rekindles his funny-face antics that were used to such great effect in Johnny Stecchino, where he played a mild-mannered bus driver and his spitting image, a Sicilian gangster. The film became the highest grossing film in Italy ever.
But in Life is Beautiful, Benigni reaches creative heights worthy of Charlie Chaplin, who effectively balanced satire and poignancy in his 1940 film The Great Dictator, where he played a Jewish barber who is mistaken for Adenoid Hynkel, the Hitler-like dictator of Tomania.
Adolf Eichmann boasted that helping to send six million people to their deaths would allow him to “leap laughing into his grave”. In his movie Benigni gives some form of poignant and funny revenge to the victims. Beautifully designed by Danilo Donati and photographed by Sergio Leone’s collaborator, Tonino Delli Colli (of Once Upon a Time in the West fame), the movie is a perfect balancing act. Although the first half is forgetfully easy, the conclusion of the film is devastatingly audacious in the way it makes you both laugh and cry.
15 April 1999
this man really think the Holocaust was a joke?
Brian Logan meets Roberto Benigni - director and star of Life is Beautiful [15/04/99]
Camping it up
Jonathan Romney finds Benigni's comedy sincere but horribly misjudged [15/04/99]