Review of Life Is Beautiful (1997)

Moving picture, 116 minutes

Seen in 2017.

Gas chamber comedy. I’m a sucker for mass tragedy at the edges of WW2. The day before I saw this, I read the children’s book “Shin’s Tricycle” (1992) and cried even at that, but this film left me mystified. It is the least emotional film about the Holocaust I have seen, and the least intellectual. I can see why some people find Shoah (1985) difficult to palate or digest, but I am saddened that anybody would prefer to think of the Holocaust with this strange creature.

The wooing of Dora in the first half is full of Chekhov’s guns and posturing inferior to Picassos äventyr (1978). Roberto Benigni may have charmed Hollywood by playing into his own “ethnic type” but he doesn’t have half the talent of Gösta Ekman. The pretence of the game in the second half is never plausible with a six-year-old and therefore not moving. It only made me wonder about the balance of motivations behind the combination of genres.

Dramatic irony is limited to the scene where Giosuè has dodged the showers. Such irony is not the purpose of mixing comedy and tragedy throughout the second half, nor is this a black comedy where the awful itself is made laughable. Benigni’s own explanation that the comedy stems from the combination of Rubino Romeo Salmonì’s survival-biased gallows humour and the director’s father’s lies hardly motivates the effort of making this film. Both influences are caricatured. In the end, the contrasts are those of “Boom Boom” (1936), a Looney Tune where trench warfare is shown to be a bit of harmless fun without denying that it killed millions.

Guido carries Looney Tune quantities of anvils, like a sick bird pretending to be well to discourage predators. Was the mixing of genres intended mainly for comic relief, to support the trite notion that life is indeed beautiful when you have something to fight for, or to underline the real danger by showing how it generates magical thinking? The protagonist’s misunderstanding of Schopenhauer is a textbook case of the latter, uncomplicated by the character’s death. As a prescription for how to prevent or how to deal with such horrors, this is worse than useless.

The perpetrators of the Holocaust are never humanized, barely even characterized apart from Lessing’s implausible, albeit nicely acted insanity. Several details make no sense, like the prisoners all suddenly following the Germans, the Americans entering the camp from the rear without the slightest fear of mines and snipers, and the tank crew hearing one another over the engine noise. The production values are completely inferior to Schindler’s List (1993). I did like uncle Eliseo though. He attempts magical thinking against the thugs who are robbing him in the first half but goes quietly to his death.

References here: Amélie (2001), The Pianist (2002).

moving picture fiction