Trompler Foundation Archives

La Vita è bella (Life is Beautiful)

Tragedy plus not enough time.

The scene: a Nazi concentration camp.  Michael Palin is in a SS uniform, clipboard in hand.  He asks each of a queue of prisoners, "Zyklon B?"  Each replies, "Yes," and Palin says reassuringly, "Good; out the door, shower on the left, one bar of soap each."  Eventually he gets to Eric Idle, who when asked, "Zyklon B?" replies "Ah, no, freedom."  Flustered at the novelty, Palin asks, "What?"  Idle explains, "Uh, freedom for me.  They said that there was nothing really wrong with being a Jew, so they said I could go free and get on a plane to England."  Palin is confused, but no less pleased for Idle for it; "Oh, well, that's jolly good.  Well, off you go, then."  Idle relents, though, "No, I'm only pulling your leg--it's Zyklon B really."  Palin is amused (and relieved), "Oh I see, very good, very good.  Well, out the door--"  Idle enthusiastically finishes Palin's sentence for him, "I know--out the door, shower on the left, one bar of soap each," and bounds out the door.  The disruption over, Palin turns his comforting mien to the next prisoner.

Is the above any less funny than the Roman crucifixion version featured in Life of Brian?  To me, it is (slightly).  And that "slightly" is, ultimately, what will determine whether one can enjoy La Vita è bella as fully as the Cannes jury apparently did.  Roberto Benigni's comic farce set in Fascist Italy from 1939 to 1945 has been met with both unqualified praise and righteous indignation, neither of which forms a satisfactory response to the vexing challenge posed by Benigni's artistic choice.

The first half of La Vita è bella is a romantic comedy as Benigni's character Guido arrives in a Tuscan town to take a position as a waiter in his uncle's restaurant and save up money to open a bookstore.  This latter ambition is thwarted by the bureaucratic hostility of Rodolfo, the local Fascist potentate (Amerigo Fontani); meanwhile, the bulk of Guido's energy is devoted to the pursuit of Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), who is of course engaged to Rodolfo.  Awareness of the racist climate creeps in when Guido impersonates a Fascist inspector at Dora's school in order to arrange a date with her, and finds himself expected to give a lecture on the superiority of the Aryan race.  The hilarious satire that results marks the high-water mark of Benigni's attempt to marry his slapstick genius with the historical reality of the Holocaust.  Subsequent foreshadowing seems insultingly mild; our first notice of Guido's Jewishness is occasioned by the "vandalism" visited upon his uncle:  his horse is painted green and labeled "Achtung! Jewish horse!"  Kristallnacht this is not.  Eventually (and very entertainingly), Guido wins out and convinces Dora to marry him instead.

Flash forward five years:  Guido and Dora are married, they have a son, Giosué (Giorgio Cantarini), and Guido owns his bookstore (Rodolfo must have left town in shame rather than use his formidable resources to harry Guido).  When Giosué asks why certain businesses have signs stating "No dogs or Jews allowed", rather than giving his son a useful lesson on the perils of being Jewish in an anti-Semitic society, Guido makes a joke about how they will put up a sign in their store stating "No spiders or Visigoths."  One day, Dora comes home to find that Guido, his uncle, and Giosué have been arrested.  In order to spare his son the reality of what is about to happen to them (!), Guido decides to pretend that everyone in the camp is competing in a contest, the grand prize being a real, life-size tank, and that by hiding from the guards (who "aren't really mean; that's just they way they have to act in order to win the game"), Giosué will help them earn points toward victory.  Dora gallantly demands to be let on the same train with her family, which helps Giosué believe his father's fabrication.  Rather than being a desperate struggle to avoid death, however, the film remains a comic farce as the SS guards are straight men to be mocked by Guido, and the other prisoners merely part of the scenery (or worse, obstacles to Guido's fantasy, as when one inconsiderately tells Giosué that "they make buttons and soap out of us", providing another occasion for Guido to make fun of industrial-scale murder).

My poor reaction to the second half of the film is particularly vexing, as I have long protested against any tendency to apotheosize the Holocaust as the single greatest evil in history, to set it beyond the realm of comparison with other human atrocities.  To do so, to call the Holocaust "inhuman", to claim that the hatred, cowardice, and submission of individual conscience to group "will" exhibited in Nazi-dominated Europe is qualitatively different from that displayed in other atrocities before and since, is to blind oneself to the very human qualities that made the Holocaust possible, and therefore to invite it to happen again.  I am therefore hard-pressed to explain why Benigni made me uncomfortable and Monty Python did not.

It's not as if I'm (over-)sensitive to distasteful subject matter in films.  I cheered the poetic justice at the cannibalistic climax of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.  More recently, I was genuinely sympathetic to the plights of Dylan Baker's and Philip Seymour Hoffman's characters in Happiness, and when Ian McKellen's Nazi war criminal in Apt Pupil maneuvered the film's title character into finding out, first-hand, just "what it was like," I cackled right along with McKellen.  So why couldn't I let myself be charmed by Benigni's undoubted comedic talents into accepting the film's triumphant conclusion?

Despite today's marketers' ham-fisted-best attempts to spin-target film trailers and commercials, there's really no longer any excuse for film-goers not to know what they're getting into.  While the number of films that I have walked out of (or wish that I had) prior to film's end can be counted on one hand, my awareness of the film's controversial plot no doubt spared me the rude surprise that must have befallen the handful of people who walked out of La Vita è bella (much fewer, it must be said, than walked out of any of the three films mentioned above).  This awareness, however, primed me to be on the alert for any attempt by Benigni to dilute the Holocaust to make room for his buffoonery.  But why should I care?  Perhaps I was afraid that Benigni's film could not avoid appearing to say that more Jews would have survived the camps had they memorized more Buster Keaton routines.  Another viewer offered the interpretation that the film's concentration camp scenes are to be seen as the perspective of the five-year-old Giosué.  This is a cogent point, as I was fully able to enjoy the child's perspective on the London Blitz in John Boorman's Hope and Glory (to be sure, Boorman never pretended that the Luftwaffe dropped cotton candy). 

I have come to conclude that the historical context of the last fifty years prevents me from not insisting on deadly accuracy in every depiction of the Holocaust.  Paradoxically, while the Holocaust is one of the most thoroughly documented genocides in history, its authenticity has come under the most venomous attack.  I was born 23 years after the last camp was liberated, yet that's not long enough for me to be untouched by the mandate, "Never Forget."  Benigni isn't exempt from this, either; he's not some ignorant American high school student turning in a paper claiming the Holocaust wasn't as bad as everyone says.  When Guido comically mistranslates the German guard's instructions to the prisoners in order to establish the "rules of the game" for Giosué, Benigni wants us to forget that their fellow prisoners will suffer for their ignorance of camp regulations.  When Guido and his son take over the camp's PA system to wish a happy birthday to Dora in the women's barracks, Benigni wants us to forget that, as a consequence, Giosué will most surely be discovered and gassed.  When Guido is sprinting about in drag in order to reunite his family just prior to the camp's liberation, Benigni wants us to forget that by war's end few prisoners possessed the strength to walk, let alone pratfall. 

I recognize that my inability to accept a watered-down version of the Holocaust is a cultural artifact, part of a historical context populated by both camp survivors and virulent revisionists.  If there were any doubt that Benigni does not also share this context, it is dispelled by the fact that the moral that Benigni proposes we draw from La Vita è bella, that in the face of hardship and cruelty beyond our control we are responsible only for the bravery of the individual spirit, is straight out of the Existential tradition that followed the Second World War.  Where Benigni's philosophy fails is that that same tradition requires an honest confrontation with the horrors of the human condition, which Benigni denies us in La Vita è bella (a phrase from Trotsky, written while awaiting assassination by Stalin's thugs).

Perhaps in another fifty years, when all the survivors and anyone who knew them are gone, it will no longer be distasteful to make a vaudeville out of Auschwitz.  Part of me feels that's all it is, a matter of taste.  There are plenty of people, from critics to film-makers to ordinary folk, who think Benigni's comic talents and his life-affirming message transcend the historical inaccuracies of the film, and I know enough of them well enough to be unable to dismiss them as morally handicapped.  My difficulties with La Vita è bella will certainly not prevent me from enjoying Benigni's other work, nor will I deny that the poeticism of the film's final scene makes a compelling case for Benigni's excellent craftsmanship as a film-maker.  I admire Benigni, and I'm in awe of what he thought he was attempting.  In an era which most of the film industry's attention and money goes to abominations like Armageddon and Pleasantville, it's hard to accuse La Vita è bella of poor taste.  I will therefore settle for accusing it of poor timing.

Eric Scharf

Copyright © 1998 by Eric Scharf.  All rights reserved.

Date:  Sat, 21 Nov 1998 22:10:56 -0500
From:  David A.  Tepper
To:  Eric Scharf
Subject:  Re:  Review:  Life is Beautiful (1998)

I enjoyed reading your review of "Life Is Beautiful".  Disagreed with it, but enjoyed it.

However, your complaint that Benigni watered down the horrors of the Holocause deserves a bit of exploring.  As I understand it (no history books or other sources on me now, sorry), Italy was spared the full-scale horrors of Nazism for a long time.  Yes, there was racism, and there was graffiti, and there was hassling of the Italian Jewish population.  But deportation to the concentration camps only occurred in the final months of the war.  (I would guess Hitler, eager to speed up his "Final Solution" before the Allies arrived, leaned on Mussolini to do the same.) In any event, the Italian Jews who were sent to the camps has a fairly good chance of survival if they could hold on until the Americans arrived.

In other words, the Italian perspective of the Holocaust is necessarily different from the French or German or Polish perspective.  An interesting exercise is to compare Life Is Beautiful with The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, a 1970 film about the Italian Holocaust.  I think you'll find many of the same themes echoed in both movies, minus the comedy in the case of The Garden.

And there was one comment my mother made after I'd seen Life Is Beautiful that troubled me.  Her first question about the movie was, "Did anyone die?" That almost pornographic desire to see the bloody effects of the concentration camps ignores everything else that was done.  Children learning about racism with their multiplication problems.  Graffiti appearing everywhere with the only response from the authorities and victims alike being a resigned shrug.  Strings of annoying laws that imperceptibly grow more threatening and deadly.  We ask ourselves, "Why didn't they escape if they could see what was going to happen?" I think LIB and Garden turn that question around to ask, "Would you have realized what was going on if you were living through the low-level hate that just kept growing and growing?"

In short, I think your review is based on the flawed premise that the Holocaust was a European phenomenon centered on Germany, when in reality it should be viewed as a series of reginal histories. And on that note, I would really like to see big-screen interpretations of the Danish refusal to turn over the Jews and of the book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, which is about a French village who protected their Jews at a very horrendous cost.

All best,

Date:  Tue, 24 Nov 1998 18:14:40 -0800
From:  Eric Scharf
To:  David A.  Tepper
Subject:  Re:  Review:  Life is Beautiful (1998)

On Sat, 21 Nov 1998, David A.  Tepper wrote:

In other words, the Italian perspective of the Holocaust is necessarily different from the French or German or Polish perspective.

No argument here, but my main point, that artistic discussions of the Holocaust, particularly ones that prominently feature Jewish victims and Nazi villains, cannot help but invoke certain moral obligations in (my experience of) Western culture.  Had Benigni made a documentary about the particular Italian experience during the Holocaust, he would have been "allowed" to show how it contrasted with the German experience.  But Benigni is quite explicitly appealing to the universal human condition, and if his message is to succeed he cannot flash a swastika and then gloss over the plight of the victims of Auschwitz.

And there was one comment my mother made after I'd seen Life Is Beautiful that troubled me.  Her first question about the movie was, "Did anyone die?" That almost pornographic desire to see the bloody effects of the concentration camps ignores everything else that was done.

I think you're correct in your use of the word "pornographic" (although I would have used "prurient") to describe the desire (properly denied by Benigni) to see grisly death visually depicted in Holocaust-related film. However, there's a difference between wanting to see death on the screen and recognizing that realism would require death (displayed or not) to occur.  "Did anyone die?" could just have easily meant, "Did the film pretend no one (of importance to the story) died?"

In short, I think your review is based on the flawed premise that the Holocaust was a European phenomenon centered on Germany, when in reality it should be viewed as a series of regional histories.

The analogy that comes to mind when trying to address my premise's "flaw" is that of the Black Death, which was spread throughout Europe by fleas carried by rats.  The Black Death affected millions of people over several years, and every region of Europe experienced it in ways both universal and particular to that region.  Yet for centuries afterwards it was viewed not as an urban hygiene problem but as God's Judgement.  Anyone talking about the Black Death without acknowledging its (widely held) theological dimension would be viewed, at best, as deluded.  With the advantages of the science of epidemiology and, more important, over five hundred years' distance, we can talk about how this or that city lived through the plague.  We can even joke about it.  Barely fifty years after Nuremburg, turning the SS into Keystone Kops is considered morally flippant, particularly since we attach greater ethical complexity to Nazis than we do to plague-ridden rats.

Mind you, I'm not at all at ease with these cultural mandates.  I'm even sympathetic to those artists who've been Shoahed and Schindlered into believing that we've said all that we need to say about the Holocaust, and that future films that "happen" to be set in Nazi-occupied Europe have no moral obligation to history, justice, or taste.  But that sympathy does not prevent me from scrutinizing the artistic motives (as far as I can discern them) of such filmmakers, nor are such filmmakers relieved of their responsibility for their work, and in my judgement Benigni does not succeed in justifying his choice of subject matter.

Eric Scharf

Date:  Wed, 24 Mar 1999 18:35:33 EST
To:  Eric Scharf
Subject:  La Vita è Bella

No Spam here, my good man.  No wafer-thin mints either.

An ignorant "review" on Life Is Beautiful.  This film is about the greatest love of all - family, and just how "beautiful" life really is.  No matter how bad the situation you're in is, there is always someone worse off (hence, Dr. Lessing and his riddles).  Benigni has restored people's faith in life.  He put us, through his film, in the worst possible place on earth (by no means, trivializing that fact) and showed us how life goes on, even then.  Can you think of a place or time with more evil surrounding it?  Probably not.  What a perfect backdrop for a story of survival...a young Giosue is the tribute to those who survived and lived, and Guido to the millions who didn't.  If Guido (if only on film) could shelter his boy by keeping their spirits up there, then nothing should ever seem so dim ever again that we feel that our life is over.

Giosue's "buttons...and soap..." is brilliant, seeing it through the eyes of a child.  That is what happened, like it or not, and how sad to hear a little boy repeating those words.

This is not a historically accurate piece.  Watch the trashy Spielberg film PVT RYAN for that (although I hardly believe there could be that many stock characters in a war at the same time).  This is a magical movie that gives people hope at the lowest times in their life.  And makes you want to be a better person (and parent).

I at least hope you thought Shake in Love was weak, long, and Hollywood.

Date:  Tue, 27 Apr 1999 12:36:29 -0700 (Pacific Daylight Time)
From:  Eric Scharf
Subject:  Re:  La Vita e' ella

On Wed, 24 Mar 1999 wrote:

An ignorant "review" on Life Is Beautiful.

The only thing your comments demonstrate my ignorance of is your faith.  Here's some free advice:  not everyone shares your religious experiences, and even when an artist as talented as Begnini expresses a "truth" or a "beauty" that moves you, not everyone who fails to be moved is "ignorant".

This film is about the greatest love of all - family, and just how "beautiful" life really is.

I know several families who would dispute this.

Giosue's "buttons...and soap..." is brilliant, seeing it through the eyes of a child.  That is what happened, like it or not, and how sad to hear a little boy repeating those words.  This is not a historically accurate piece.

The point of my review was that, when discussing the Holocaust in any context, historical inaccuracies have often led down the slippery slope to Holocaust denial, which our culture isn't yet ready to accept, even under the guise of artistic license.  Many people have declared their readiness to be moved by Begnini's art, but unfortunately (for me) I am not one of them.

I at least hope you thought Shake in Love was weak, long, and Hollywood.

Worse, it starred Gwyneth Paltrow.

Eric Scharf