Heart-Warming Holocaust

Life Is Beautiful

For its first half, Roberto Benigni’s surprising Oscar winner Life Is Beautiful is a sparkling, nimble romantic comedy — utterly charming and magical. And then it abruptly turns into a Holocaust drama. It’s still charming, and that’s its problem.

Benigni, in addition to directing and co-writing, plays Guido, an Italian Jew who falls madly in love with a schoolteacher, Dora (Nicoletta Braschi). Being an irrepressible ham with a sharp wit helps him win her over, at her engagement announcement no less. This tightly written, beautifully executed courtship culminates with Guido trotting into the banquet on a horse painted green, and it says much about Benigni’s skill as a director, writer, and actor that the animal’s appearance is perfectly in-tune with what came before.

But there is, even in this lighthearted fare, trouble brewing. The story begins as Jews in Italy are being harassed (the horse was painted with a racial slur), and fast-forwards five years, when they’re being shipped to concentration camps. Guido and Dora by then have a son Giosué, and when the two males are put on a train, Dora (who isn’t Jewish) insists on going right along with them.

Guido convinces Giosué that the trip is his birthday present, and that they’re playing a game to win a real tank. When all the other children disappear, Guido says they’re hiding to earn points toward the first prize. When the boy hears that people are being turned into soap and buttons and being burned in ovens, Guido takes advantage of a child’s logic and asks if his buttons look like people, and whether he’s ever heard of an oven for people.

Here Benigni asks a lot. Kids might not be able to understand the mechanics of genocide, but they are surely more perceptive than he thinks. Just as importantly, the movie’s happy ending and overall heartwarming effect are less a result of Guido’s efforts than simple timing, which largely negates the impact of the father’s actions.

A larger problem is tone. Benigni leaves all the violence — scenes of kids and old folks being exterminated by the Nazis — off-screen. Admittedly, they would feel out-of-place in the movie, but then again, so does the Holocaust. The audience is swept away in the movie’s first half, and although the comic energy ebbs in the concentration camp, the light tone never lets up enough to allow the horror of what’s really going on to seep in. Just as Guido dismisses the serious message of the vandalized horse, so the director diminishes the suffering of the Jews. It’s not an intentional slight, surely, but it’s tough to get past.

As perfect as it is in many ways, Life Is Beautiful only fails spectacularly in its central aim: to make a great Holocaust comedy. (Admittedly, it’s a near-impossible task.) Benigni leaves us with a too-winning, too-entertaining film. You don’t have to turn concentration camps into dour movies without smiles — Schindler’s List had plenty of light moments — but the subject matter deserves more dignity than it gets here.

Leave a comment