Life is Beautiful
Roberto Benigni's film 'Life is Beautiful' has arrived with so much hype that it seems we're all expected to lie down and roll over like happy puppies, drooling at his wit and charm, and weeping at his tragedy. I'd seen Benigni's early film 'The Monster,' in which he's mistaken for a serial rapist -- lots of laughs in that concept -- and his sequence in Jim Jarmusch's 'Night on Earth,' in which he plays a Rome cab driver who insists on confessing to his fare, who's a priest, all his life's sexual activity, which begins with fucking a pumpkin, moves on to a sheep, and continues with his brother's wife, who reminds him of the sheep. The problem with the confession is that the priest, in the back seat, is having a heart attack and dying while Benigni goes on and on. It's funnier in the telling than it is in the film itself, not to mention the fact that it had been done before in a number of other, better, movies.
And now here he is in 'Life is Beautiful' as Guido, a Jew in 1939 Italy, where Mussolini's fascism has just melded with Nazi racism. Guido meets a wonderful woman, a Gentile, whom he sweeps off her feet with a combination of balls and panache, marries her, and with her has a beautiful little boy. Just as the boy turns five, the family is deported to a concentration camp and Benigni turns the experience into a game, so his son won't realize that they're all facing death.
Well, it's a concept, I guess, kind of 'Schindler's List Meets The Court Jester,' but that doesn't make it a very good concept, or a profound one, or even a funny one. Benigni is a physical comedian, with the mandatory good body control but not, unfortunately, a very good sense of humor. As a performer he's manic, a nonstop talker, and -- you'll notice this in all his films -- he's always miked brighter and closer than anyone else in his scenes. It's a strange kind of ego massage, and it's something I'd never heard before with even the most arrogant of stars. It seems to be Benigni's way of saying 'I'm here, be sure to listen to me.' And he writes dialogue that's essentially a series of monologues for himself broken by occasional lines given out to whomever happens to be in the scene.
It's not a pretty sight, and it makes for a pretty bad movie. I don't know that I want to get into the debate over whether the Holocaust is fit material for a comedian. The film's conceit, that it would actually be possible to shield one's child from death once you were in the death camp, is quite improbable at best and infantile at worst. And it hasn't helped that the film is sweeping the festival circuit. The publicity weighs it down with so much baggage that it's hard for me, anyway, to give it anything resembling an open mind. I'm a Jew, and like all Jews I escaped the Holocaust simply because I'm an American and live here instead of Poland, which is where my family came from and where half of them died.
It's also odd that American film people, the members of the Motion Picture Academy, have nominated it for both best foreign film, which is at least understandable, and for best film period. It's as though the Hollywood film community thinks we can't ever have enough Holocaust reminders. It's true, but surely they could be better reminders than this one.