Camping it up
Review by Jonathan Romney
Among cinema's most notorious unseen works is a Jerry Lewis film called The Day the Clown Cried - a tear-jerking comedy about the Holocaust. Never completed, it has gone down in screen legend, fairly or otherwise, as a film that we can all be grateful for never having had to watch. The nearest we'll ever get to that fabled monstrosity is Roberto Benigni's La Vita E Bella. The title is translated as Life is Beautiful, although an acquaintance innocently suggested Life's A Gas. If only the film were as bitterly, facetiously Swiftian as that.
But a comedy designed to make us feel good about the Holocaust - that truly is a fool's undertaking. And Benigni is surely arguing that only a fool can convincingly address a subject of this gravity. He's managed to make his film without offending the world. Life is Beautiful has broken Italian box-office records and been hugely acclaimed in the US, winning best foreign film and best actor for Benigni at the Oscars. The Pope has given it at least his implicit blessing by having it privately screened, and it's been given a special award by the State of Israel. But I can't help feeling we've turned a corner in the way we think about the Holocaust when a film this naively blundering can pass without question.
Benigni has made two films here - the first a knockabout sentimental comedy set in Mussolini's Italy, about the romance between a jovial Jewish waiter and his blushing sweetheart; the second a harrowing tale in which they and their young son are deported in the wagons to certain death. Benigni, starring, directing and co-writing, reprises the hyper-animated clown of his many Italian hits as Guido, who arrives in Arezzo to collide, literally, with schoolteacher Dora (Benigni's wife and co-star Nicoletta Braschi). He blunders into a royal reception, does an impersonation of a school inspector, and saves Braschi from marriage to a local boor. His tricks are straight out of the ancient slapstick repertoire.
It's comedy that harks straight back to Chaplin and to venerable Italian screen clown Toto, with jokes that could have been decanted straight from a George Formby vehicle. Benigni is less a satirist than a manic jester bent on drawing attention to himself, and Braschi's sole function is to make delighted goo-goo eyes at him. Even when Guido is defying the Nazis, he's only really doing it to get an admiring laugh out of her, and us.
In the second part, Guido and Dora have a son, Giosué. When the family are taken off to a camp, the change of register isn't as startling as you'd imagine. Guido desperately wants to keep the boy happy, and tells him that the camp is a recreational centre where they've been brought to play a jolly game - whoever hides longest wins. He mistranslates a guard's barked instructions, and makes light of Giosué's horror story about people being boiled down for soap. But what ought to be scathingly black humour comes across as innocuous wordplay, thanks to Benigni's relentlessly jovial delivery.
The upshot is, inevitably, an ending designed to make us both weep and laugh with relief. But this emotional pay-off is based on nothing less than denial. The film proposes self-deception, and deception of children, as the only possible survival tactic. Benigni may not be denying the Holocaust, but he denies the depth of its horrors. He plays down camp existence, sparing us cruelties from the guards; there's barely a shaven head to be seen.
Why lay on the horror, you might say - it is a comedy. But the one truly nightmarish image is misjudged: the moment when Guido stumbles on a huge mound of dead bodies. Benigni makes it an aesthetic vision, like a religious image in ivory, beautiful in its starkness. If there's one place beauty doesn't belong, it's here. This is the most unthinkingly kitsch image I've ever seen in cinema, and just one of many foolish touches from a director who doesn't know not to cross the barrier of bad rhetoric, who thinks nothing of having a stray kitten clamber over the clothes of the dead.
There's no doubt that Life is Beautiful is a sincere undertaking, but it's fundamentally mendacious - it presents the Holocaust as a gently touching tragedy with a happy ending, its horrors doused in a few cathartic tears. Its dramatic logic even implies that the horror really happened so that one man could become a hero. Even Schindler's List strived to be about more than one German's moral redemption.
There's no reason why comedy shouldn't have the audacity to compete with cinema's great statements about the Holocaust: Alain Resnais' Night and Fog and Claude Lanzmann's Shoah. But comedy can't address the Holocaust with a benevolent smile. Nothing less than a pained rictus will do. The great example isn't a film but a strip cartoon - Art Spiegelman's Maus, which recognised the Holocaust as a trauma that left its scars on generations. For Benigni, the Holocaust has a bittersweet ending that allows us to emerge safe in our easy-won conviction that laughter must triumph. La Vita E Bella argues that life, even in its horror, can be beautiful after all; I think it only proves that cinema, even at its most benevolent, can be mighty ugly.
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]
love and hatred
Racial hatred and violence are brought to the fore with the release this week of Life is Beautiful. By Andrew Worsdale [15/04/99]