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In this episode: Life is Beautiful | No Need to Click This

What I learned from watching Life is Beautiful: Italians can't fake their hiccups with any believability.

What else I learned: Denial can save your life.

The denial thing I think is why some people have complained that Roberto Benigni, the co-writer, director, and star of La Vita è Bella, has made light of the Holocaust. Oh, what fools. If you watch this movie in a two-dimensional way, you will see a loud-mouthed, foolish-looking man who lies to his son and ignores the plight of his people, turning the concentration camp in which he's imprisoned into a game club. But that's just ignorance. There's so much more to this movie, and most people have picked up on that. The illustrious and sage Academy has, which is certainly all that matters. Haurrumpf.

This movie is not completely original. Sure, the Holocaust may not have been dealt with in this way before, but other subjects have. Who's the king of making comedy out of tragedy? Charlie Chaplin. His movies, short and long, twist the terrible into the humorous without glossing over the underlying drama. The Gold Rush, for instance. It's a hilarious film, but also delivers quite an emotional wallop. In Life is Beautiful, Benigni uses the same humorous brush to paint the Holocaust. I think Charlie is funnier than Roberto, but the point here is not really how many guffaws per litre you get. It's how you turn something evil into something tolerable; it's how you use humanity to live through hell.

The movie at times gets sappy and silly, but those moments are rather few, and when they happen, they are over before they become too annoying. The rest of the movie—at least in the first half—remains ahead of the sap and stays, er, twinkly. Twinkly? Twinkly. Roberto plays Guido, a bright, twinkly guy who lives in a happy, bright, twinkly world. He comes to a charming, twinkly Italian city to live. There's a woman, Dora, whom Guido meets on the way to the city and then bumps into randomly once there; though not herself so twinkly, Dora is certainly luminescent. They fall in love and marry, and the child they have together, Giosué, is a little pillbox of twinkly energy. It is this twinkly life that Guido attempts to hold onto as long as possible once he and his family end up imprisoned in a concentration camp.

My calling the movie twinkly doesn't mean it was stupid or unbearable. It is a touch over the top, but that's because this is a fairy tale. It's no accident Guido always greets Dora with, "Buongiorno, Principessa!" "Good day, Princess!" Guido is a charming roustabout (you can only use that word in talking about foreign films) with a chaotic but charmed existence. By remaining so constantly uplifted, Guido injects his optimism into his whole world and most of those around him. Magical accidents happen that Guido uses to woo Dora, and his tenacity and bright outlook and nearly insane antics end up winning Dora outright. Definitely a fairy tale. And like any fairy tale, darkness has to come eventually. That's where the lesson is taught. I doubt the Brothers Grimm could have conceived of a terror as dark as a Nazi concentration camp, but that's what we get in this particular tale.

The twinkling slows down major big time once the action moves to the camp, but it does not go away completely. What could possibly help a person triumph in the face of such an atrocious life? Humor and spirit. A sort of denial. And that is what this movie is about. It's not about the denial of the Holocaust and its terrors, but about how denial needs to be a part of life if you are forced to live with such terrors. Guido and his son and wife make it through the camp day by day by denying the Nazis the power they have to take away love and hope. The invented game Guido has his son "playing" while in the camp is the vehicle of denial that keeps the family from being completely crushed. Guido's love of life may have become tarnished a bit thanks to the abuse he's been dealt, but it's still there. The twinkling comes through at intervals so Guido can help his son and wife survive and the three can remain a family.

The movie is never truly violent—no one gets their eyes pecked out by birds or any such Grimm stuff—but it's all implied. Roberto plays off the fact that we all know what happened in the camps and so it is not necessary to show us all that yet again. Schindler's List and other movies have paved the way for Life is Beautiful. Roberto can therefore concentrate on his message of hope and strength. There is one fantastically out-of-place and brilliant shot where an accumulation of the violence is shown. I don't want to ruin it, so I won't describe it, but it is jarring. Here, Guido is confronted with the real toll, the ultimate antithesis to his twinkly self. Instead of being destroyed by it, though, he becomes more determined to save himself and his loved ones.

Enough explaining. Life is Beautiful is something you need to go watch and experience. Sure, I could tell you about the odd freneticism some of the movie has, a style of filmmaking we don't use in America (unless you count Michael Bay's twisted sister of freneticism used to alarming and unfortunate effect in Armageddon). I could talk about how the kid is pretty good but is really just cute. I could talk about the sudden voice over at the very end of the movie that isn't really necessary. But these are all minor things, and they actually add to the whole experience of the movie.

I wasn't moved to tears by this one. I didn't walk out with that sort of numb, deep-in-thought feeling I get after the best lesson-teaching movies. The movie didn't stay in my head for days or even hours like others do. But certain images and moments come back to me now and then since seeing it (the green horse rescue, the pillow umbrella, Guido at the opera looking the wrong way), and I was definitely swept away during the movie itself. I don't know if these are criticisms, really. They are just impressions. Judging by the audience's reaction (a nearly full theater on a Sunday afternoon), some people would argue with me about the movie's lasting power, which is as it should be. I just don't want everyone to expect to go in and get an emotional wallop as intense as Saving Private Ryan or even The Thin Red Line. Just go in and enjoy the movie. It is fantastic and, though I don't think it'll win Best Picture (maybe it will in the Foreign Film category), it certainly deserves to be in the running. Go see it on the big screen if you can. Video will lessen its impact.




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©1999 Steven Lekowicz