Take a Drink: for riddles
Take a Drink: for callbacks
Take a Drink: for fascist imagery
Take a Drink: for coincidences
Take a Drink: every time Benigni covers up a harsh reality with comedy
Take a Drink: for hat swaps
Do a Shot: to cure hiccups
Do a Shot: for winks
By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
The recent trip to central Europe that my wife and I took spawned a bit of a movie marathon, albeit one of the most depressing ones imaginable. Outside of Amadeus, World War II was the focus, and since we visited Auschwitz, Holocaust movies in particular. After Schindler’s List, The Pianist, and the supremely depressing The Sound of Music (Best Picture ?!), we were desperately in need of a pick me up.
Oh, you know we ended with this.
Occupying a niche of one, comically delightful Holocaust movies, Life is Beautiful proved a needed respite from the horror. Well, for the most part. Written, directed by, and starring Italian Master of Slapstick Roberto Benigni. The first half of the film concerns his romancing of Nicoletta Braschi, and the second joins them a few years later, happily married with a young son (Giorgio Cantarini). Only then we learn Benigni is a Jew, and when he and his family are taken to a concentration camp, he must use the full extent of his improvisation and wit to preserve his young son’s innocence.
By every right, Life is Beautiful should be an abject failure. From the time jumping structure, to the mix of comedy and pathos, to the simple fact that the film tries to find humor in the Holocaust, the line that this story must walk in order to be successful is razor thin, and razor sharp. And yet, Roberto Benigni walks this line with aplomb.
He has a good sense of balance
A huge reason for this success is that it’s impossible not to fall for Benigni’s motormouth charisma. Just like with Braschi, he wears you down with the sheer volume of his charm, his neverending effort to make you laugh. It helps that he has ridiculous physical comedy gifts, as spry and inventive as Buster Keaton with the effusiveness of Eddie Murphy. Braschi is the perfect foil as well, a master of the reaction shot and not without skill at slapstick herself.
Technically speaking, everything hits on all cylinders; Nicola Piovani’s manic and delicate, sprightly and sad score, Tonino Delli Colli’s cinematography, the in turns fairytale and nightmare set design. Benigni and Vincenzo Cerami’s script is a textbook example of the form as well. Its construction is breath-takingly intricate, full of callbacks and references both comic and tragic. Everything comes back around in a seemingly effortless manner, through magic, coincidence, and good old fashioned persistence.
However, all the technical and comedic talent in the world can’t salvage offensive subject matter, and this is about as inflammatory a subject and approach as you could think of.
Just ask Jerry Lewis.
What does is the obvious emotion put into the film. Benigni’s father survived three years at the dreaded Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and Life is Beautiful feels like a monument to him, built with the only material Benigni can, comedy. Instead of straying into mawkish territory, as it so easily could have, Benigni makes the film a portrait of the resiliency of love and the human spirit. The message isn’t always practical, and almost certainly overoptimistic even at its worst, but it’s one that we need to be able to believe.
I mentioned the thin line that this film walks, and admittedly it does come close to stepping over it at times. It certainly blows past the limits of plausibility, but this is more fable than history, and small moments like the German doctor’s callous fixation on his riddles, the pile of clothes that Braschi helps to sort, or that horrifying fog, give us as much a peek at harsh reality as this film needs. Only two scenes ring false- when Benigni carries his routine into the camp but out of the sight of his son while carrying anvils in the workshop, and that final, admittedly awful freeze frame.
Life is Beautiful is a hilarious, heartbreaking, incredibly daring, and beautifully optimistic fairytale about the triumph of humanity in the face of even the worst of history’s many horrors.