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At the Movies

Holocaust comedy an unlikely triumph; novel flops on screen


Can comedy go too far? Roberto Benigni is an irrepressible performer, perhaps the most popular star in Italy. In Life is Beautiful (Miramax), however, he extends the range of farce to the unspeakable: Nazi death camps. I assumed the movie would be offensive, not only to Jewish audiences. Now I believe you’ll be deeply moved-- laughing all the while.

Benigni is Guido, an irrepressible, fast-talking Jewish waiter, who spends the first third of the movie finding inventive ways of surprising Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), a pretty, aristocratic-looking teacher whom he calls Principessa. We are in Fascist Italy, 1938, and the best of Guido’s comic turns is an improvised speech explaining why Italians are a superior race, delivered while pretending to be a school inspector. No more a matinee idol than Woody Allen, he leaps on a desk, asks the students where they could find someone more handsome -- showing them his superior Italian bellybutton. Convinced by the philosophy of his sidekick Ferruccio (Sergio Bustric) that willpower can create reality, Guido succeeds in liberating Dora from the pompous official she was supposed to marry.

The charming courtship leads into a greenhouse; when they emerge it’s 1944, and they have an irresistible little boy, Giosué (Giorgio Cantarini). Suddenly the father’s Jewishness, which is never made concrete, is a danger. He and Giosué are arrested, and the rest of the movie shows Guido telling his son one lie after another in order to shield him from the awareness of horror. “What? Seats on a train?” Guido asks him as they board a cattle car. “It’s obvious you’ve never been on one.”

When they reach the camp, the atmosphere is as bleak as the prisoners’ uniforms, but Guido tells his son to remain concealed in the barracks. It’s all a game where the prize is a real tank, he insists, and in which they can win the most points by being tough. There are genuine laughs as Guido pretends to translate Nazi commands into Italian for the prisoners, but our anxiety is intense, especially since Dora had jumped into a cattle car in order to join her family and is occasionally seen in the women’s section of the prison.

While there was no way to make “Life is Beautiful” an upbeat “date movie,” the audience I was with was deeply moved and applauded spontaneously at its end.

I don’t question Benigni’s good intentions, but he stretches the improbabilities of Guido’s deception of Giosué to the breaking point. In having Guido protect Giosué’s innocence, “Life is Beautiful” also protects mine. By concentrating exclusively on the plight of one family, it turns the other deportees into zombies, and the movie’s frenetic pace makes it impossible to reflect on the consequences of Guido’s comic maneuvers.

Benigni’s clowning recalls the irrepressible spirit of Chaplin’s tramp, but I remain uneasy that a movie dealing with the Shoah should somehow leave us comforted. “Life is Beautiful” is certainly a deeply human story that shows how humor and creative imagination are necessary in any struggle against bureaucratic cruelty. Even though it makes no pretense at realism, it also raises troubling questions regarding the limits of entertainment. It’s a movie to see for yourself.

Pleasantville (New Line Cinema) arrived with an entertaining premise: Two 1990s teenagers are pulled back into the ’50s, playing out stories in an old-style sitcom modeled on “Father Knows Best.” It’s easy to go along with the trickery that takes David (Tobey Maguire) and his sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) back to a place in which they become Bud and Mary Sue, and everything is in black and white. The trouble is that writer-director Gary Ross is never clear about what he is satirizing, and the movie collapses under the weight of contradictory impulses.

Jeannine Oppewall’s production design is the best thing in the movie. As people and things begin to change, they turn from black and white into living color.

Jennifer, however, is too brashly aggressive as she introduces Pleasantville kids to sex. Jennifer even instructs her sitcom mother, Betty (Joan Allen), when the latter asks, “What’s sex?” Cut to Betty taking an ecstatic bath, as all the colors explode.

Ross piles on other confused bits of didacticism. In their reactionary befuddlement, the townsfolk organize against “the colored” -- those who have begun to change. David is responsible for Pleasantville teenagers suddenly developing a passion for books, which culminates in his sister turning down sex because she has to study and exiting from the sitcom to take a bus to the nearby college.

“Pleasantville” pretends to make its presentation of past and present evenhanded by balancing the dramatic moment when Dad gets home and finds no dinner and David’s problem when he returns to the 1990s and has to deal with the confused life of his divorced mother. Unfortunately, it lacks the wit to illuminate either the 1950s or the ’90s, reducing both to clichés.

Beloved (Touchstone) was the movie event of the season, receiving the imprimatur of Time before its opening. Without Oprah’s clout it wouldn’t have been made, and Jonathan Demme should be saluted for his courage in trying to translate Toni Morrison’s hauntingly lyric novel into screen terms.

Everyone connected with the movie labored to be faithful to the novel, but the result only underlines elements that the writer can convey more successfully than a movie director. At the beginning (1873), for example, Sethe (Oprah Winfrey) and her daughter Denver (Kimberley Elise) are living in a house haunted by a ghost, the daughter Sethe had killed 18 years earlier in order to keep the child from growing up in slavery. Whereas the novel’s opening is haunting, suggestive, and mysteriously indirect, the movie is literal and sensational, like a Halloween horror film.

Since the screenwriters emphasize the present, the movie lacks the novel’s oppressive sense of slavery’s past. Although Oprah registers a survivor’s tenacity, no actress could convey the horror and pain that is so deeply embedded in the imagination of Morrison’s heroine.

The past is sometimes recalled in lengthy narrative, and Paul D (Danny Glover) impressively summarizes his long years of wandering before he arrives at Sethe’s house, banishes the ghost and becomes Sethe’s lover. Lisa Gay Hamilton projects strong feelings of abandonment and rage as the young Sethe, giving birth to Denver in a sinking boat, but I’m not sure whether those who haven’t read the novel will always understand what is taking place.

Demme’s best work is in quieter moments as the seasons shift around Sethe’s house, and we watch the butterflies and the nearby river. There are memorable images: the party Sethe gives for Beloved and Denver, Cincinnati’s hog pens, Denver’s courage as she leaves the old house to look for a job.

Most inspiring are the shots of the revivalist meetings led by Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs (Beah Richards). When she cries out to the assembled community, “Love your own bodies,” we begin to get a sense of the womanpower that has been at the center of African-American endurance. n

Joseph Cunneen has just resigned from Cross Currents, after editing the interreligious quarterly for 48 years.

National Catholic Reporter, November 20, 1998