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Benigni’s film, like life itself, is beautiful


It seemed for a time that Roberto Benigni had got away with it. First “Life is Beautiful,” his comedy about life set in a concentration camp was voted the favorite of film festival audiences at Toronto and Vancouver, Canada, and Cannes, France. The film was successful in Europe and, in the United States, boosted by mostly favorable reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations, it set a box office record for a foreign film. Finally, there were seven Oscar nominations, the most ever for a foreign film, and those three Oscar awards that had Benigni all but levitating on his way to the stage.

But then the predictable backlash came, against not only Benigni but his film’s admiring audiences. David Denby, film critic for The New Yorker, was so provoked by the film’s success that he wrote a rare follow-up review. “Life is Beautiful” was successful, he said, because we are ready to put the Holocaust behind us. Exhausted, we don’t want to think about it anymore, so we’re grateful that Benigni has turned it into comedy. The film, he admonished, is “a benign form of Holocaust denial.”

Richard Alleva, writing in Commonweal, accused Benigni of “collapsing the greatest tragedy of our time into domestic pathos.”

The film is being compared unfavorably to the far more realistic “Schindler’s List,” whose maker, Steven Spielberg, was said to be privately appalled by Benigni’s romance.

Some of these analyses raise provocative questions. Should an event as horrible as the Holocaust serve as backdrop for a fable of any kind, let alone a fable about the role of humor in resisting evil? Does a filmmaker take inappropriate license when a film portrays the Holocaust inaccurately? Benigni’s portrayal is criticized for its lack of realism throughout. In a real concentration camp, such a romance would have been inconceivable. No parent, however determined, could have carried off a game based on lies intended to protect a young child from the horrors. In fact, no young child could have escaped being gassed. The portrayal is facile, sanitized, prettied up.

It’s worth noting that these criticisms do not catch Benigni, the film’s writer, director and star, off guard. When the idea for the film occurred to him, he told interviewers, he considered it implausable. He finally decided to go forward when the idea would not leave him alone. As a sign of his good intentions, his first screening was for a group of Holocaust survivors.

Which brings me to my defense of this film.

This is a film that resonates on several levels not from a need to deny evil, though that is a natural enough wish, but out of a deeply human need to believe it is possible, on some level, to triumph over it.

Shimon Samuels, European director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, whose purpose is Holocaust remembrance, suggested that humor is a form of resistance. “To have kept any state of humor in the concentration camps was in itself an act of resistance,” he told Christopher Goodwin of the London Times. “We in the Wiesenthal Center want to see humor very much as part of the armor, combating prejudice.” Samuels said that, while he understood that “Life is Beautiful” is unrealistic in its portrayal of the Holocaust, it is an allegory that is “beautifully made.” The center, he said, had “absolutely no objection to backing it and saying it is another means of presenting a different dimension to the Holocaust.”

On another level, Begnini speaks to a fierce instinctual maternal and paternal determination to protect the children in our care -- a desire that Mary Gordon treats memorably in her novel Men and Angels and one that many parents and grandparents easily relate to. This doesn’t mean lying to children to keep them from painful truths, as one of the silliest of Benigni’s critics suggests he advocates in this film, but it does mean recognizing how vulnerable children can be to fear, pain, loss and despair. A professor in Belgrade, interviewed on National Public Radio amid the recent NATO bombings of that city, noted that, in an unintended real-life sequel to “Life Is Beautiful,” people in Belgrade were inventing games to help children deal with the need to take shelter when the air raid sirens blast.

Meanwhile, be assured that the refugees flooding over the Serbian border have invented their own ways to soften their children’s pain.

Those of us who have not flinched from learning all we can about the Holocaust know that amid its matchless horrors, the human spirit triumphed then in ways large and small, as it is undoubtedly triumphing this week among the Kosovar refugees. “Schindler’s List,” for all its realism, was about such a triumph: a German businessman who saved more than a thousand Jewish lives. According to the Talmudic inscription on the ring the survivors gave him, “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”

“Life is Beautiful” comes with a quote too. The title is a legacy of Leon Trotsky, who couldn’t help thinking that life is beautiful even as he waited for Stalin’s assassins to kill him.

“Life is Beautiful” is a fable about hope, about keeping hope alive. It offers another window for looking back at the Holocaust, for imagining the courage it must have taken to survive, even if we cannot imagine the pain. If it weren’t for such windows, we could never look back, never risk remembering, never wonder how we, if confronted with such evil, might respond. We would all become perpetrators of Holocaust denial, and not of the benign sort.

Pamela Schaeffer is NCR special projects editor.

National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 1999