Life Is Beautiful (1997, Roberto Benigni)

!! CAUTION !!

I used to be the sort of person who never thought you could go too far with a joke. Now it seems I spend a lot of my time trying not to be a humorless old geezer frowning and rolling my eyes, grousing through nearly every modern comedy I watch, certainly every not-that-great comedian who quickly becomes a petulant dickhead when someone criticizes his (invariably his, not her) work. Either version of me finds a lot to quarrel with in Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful. It would be inaccurate to suggest that the idea of a Holocaust comedy turns me off completely. It fills me with skepticism, to be sure, but provided the humor, to use Mike White’s terminology, is that of the bullied and not the bullies, driven by a worldly sense of the insanity of the Reich, who can really flare up against it?

But Life Is Beautiful is more Hogan’s Heroes than The Great Dictator; it’s less a movie than an award-mongering vehicle for flamboyantly obnoxious comedic figure Roberto Benigni, who was best known in the States prior to this for his role in the cinematic masterpiece Son of the Pink Panther (depressingly enough, the great Blake Edwards’ last film). Benigni’s performance is decent and lively enough, but it doesn’t fit with the material. He fawns and struts and hams and strains credibility. And that’s only as an actor and comedian; unfortunately, he also directed this film. Equpped with its sinister, insulting concept, he plays it with layer upon layer of inappropriate schmaltz and slapstick.

The conceit is that he is a good father who feels he must protect his son from the horrors of the concentration camp in which they now live. Two problems: The camp, until near the end, is less a nightmare than an annoying inconvenience, the officers hardly brutal murderers but mere simple-minded buffoons, and life, of course, is beautiful. For me, at least, Benigni’s dishonesty toward his son in the film is even more problematic, partially because I believe children, even children as young as this one, deserve enough respect to be aware of reality. But I don’t know that I would feel the same if I were a parent; I’m speaking largely from the way I remember feeling as a six year-old. “We are in danger, but I will do everything in my power to protect you” seems more loving to me than “We are playing a game and you will win a tank at the end.”

Tampering with real life is something Benigni might do well to avoid; a Disneyfied version of a work camp — Benigni is forced to carry anvils down some stairs — gives him a license to be silly, but the connection to the real world is meaningless since the scope of the Holocaust is so poorly captured, even represented. It might be an acceptable film for small children, but even they would likely be exasperated by the unbelievably sugary ending, replete with a rugged, friendly G.I. Joe bringing the child to safety.

Mel Brooks, in an interview published in 2004, stated that he was annoyed by Life Is Beautiful, particularly given Benigni’s lack of personal connection with the subject matter (again calling into question his motivations for making the film), and distinguished its sanitized comedy with that of his own politically incorrect ventures, recounting the Jewish uproar over his directorial debut, The Producers. I find Brooks’ comments interesting and I agree with them to a large extent, but I confess that I found the treatment of the subject in the movie less bothersome than its more immediately obvious ineptitude. The script is pandering and false, regardless of its premise, a condition made worse by the clowning around in the lead role, its vague and possibly fraudulent ideologies about human nature splintered apart even more by the pointless first act, which is just a half-hour or so of Benigni’s usual lighter fare, connected only slightly to the main body of the film.

Much more serious is Benigni’s lack of filmmaking expertise; the movie is quite poorly structured and directed, with little sense of rhythm and almost no restraint. Scenes such as those on the train as the characters are being transported to the camp suffer from the same feel-good, benign lack of context as all the rest. Only one scene truly stands out, and displays that Benigni has some talent he’s burying: Not coincidentally, perhaps, it happens to be his death scene. That single moment of his defiantly silly march and the sickening final bang says everything the movie needs to in a matter of seconds. It’s clear, then, that this film was made for a reason: the director had something to express about living and dying amid violence. Can we please bring short subjects back into the mainstream so people like Benigni will know when to shut the fuck up instead of filling out their ideas with such cynical piffle?

[Posted originally in 2007; minor updates.]

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