Every movie that adds its own tiny new piece to history’s most nightmarish jigsaw is a great thing.
But too many films about the Holocaust get distracted from showing us what was lost by showing us how it was taken.
Italian funny man Roberto Benigni’s controversial (as well as triple Oscar-winning) Life Is Beautiful isn’t really about the Holocaust, but about human courage. It tries for the impossible: a life-loving comedy in a Nazi death camp. And, of course, Benigni’s LOL-ocaust fails.
But more importantly, it also succeeds just by trying. It begins with bumbling Jewish waiter Guido (Benigni) winning the heart of aristocratic beauty Dora (his real-life wife Nicoletta Braschi) with his clownish love of life. After a fairytale first half, we fast-forward five years.
It’s 1945. Guido, Dora and their son (Giorgio Cantarini) are carted off to a Nazi concentration camp. Once there, Benigni’s conceit kicks in: Guido attempts to shield his little son by telling him they’re simply taking part in an elaborate game. The first one to get 1,000 points wins a tank.
When they join a long line outside the prison camp, he explains there’s a queue because people are so keen to get in. He mistranslates Germans who bark terrifying orders. He pretends to look for “the guy handing out bread and jam”.
And, as old people and children are exterminated, Guido desperately invents new hide-and-seek rules to save his son. It’s surreal, agonising, sad and, yes, funny. But this isn’t a Holocaust comedy. This is a war film, a survival horror.
It’s a man using the only weapon he has to protect his son. The unavoidable problem for Benigni is that he can never fully mesh farce with tragedy: real-life horrors are softened instead of sharpened.
It’s one of the reasons why Jerry Lewis’ semi-mythic ’70s tragi-comedy The Day The Clown Cried – about a circus clown who pied-pipers a group of laughing children into the gas chamber – is locked in a drawer, never to be seen.
Life Is Beautiful – and that title still feels clumsy – is funny and sad but never quite at the same time. Perhaps a better director than Benigni should have been behind the camera, at least to tighten up the overlong and overcranked first half.
Yet, it’s his ambition, wit and sincerity that help his film find surprising poignancies, in the middle of humanity’s most terrible absurdities.