The Critics: Fairy-tales after Auschwitz
Sunday 14 February 1999
La Vita e Bella/ Life is Beautiful (PG)
Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful is no masterpiece, but there's a scene in it when, as children say when playing hide-and-seek, it gets warm. It occurs in the second half, the notorious half, the half set inside a concentration camp. (The first half is a sprightly if fairly conventional romantic comedy.) Guido, played in a manic, screen-hogging style by Benigni himself, is an ebullient Jewish waiter who finds himself deported to the camp along with his little son. Determined at whatever cost to his own welfare to conceal its true genocidal nature from the boy, he contrives to persuade him that the ordeal they're about to undergo is in reality just a game of make-believe, a game in which their oppressors are only pretending to be baddies. In the scene I refer to, he volunteers his services as an interpreter and, for the benefit of his son and to the bafflement of his fellow-inmates, systematically mistranslates a guard's barked-out orders to make them sound as though he were jocularly explaining the rules of the great game.
On paper the idea must already have been magnificent and in practice it's sublime, a gag both hilarious and outrageous, worthy, literally worthy, of Chaplin. Indeed, Chaplin's The Great Dictator is one of the models of Life is Beautiful, the other being Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (with its famous line, spoken by a Gestapo officer, "We do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping!"). And it's a measure of how close Benigni came to meeting the lunatic challenge he set himself that he isn't humiliated by these prestigious references.
A comedy about the Holocaust? I confess that, as someone for whom it's practically an axiom that the camps remain forever off-limits to attempts at mimetic reconstruction, and who was therefore one of the few people who loathed Schindler's List, I dreaded Life Is Beautiful. Yet so powerful is humour as an agent of transgressive subversion, so uncontrollably instinctive is a belly laugh, that in spite of all my misgivings I capitulated to the film. As Spielberg demonstrated, to make audiences cry at a Holocaust movie is child's play. But to make them laugh! That takes both talent (which Spielberg certainly has) and some sort of foolhardy genius (which he just as certainly doesn't). That it has absolutely no pretension to recreating the realities of the camps is precisely the grandeur, not the weakness, of Benigni's film.
Divorced from its own rather claustrophobic "world" - its diagesis, as linguistic theorists call it - the absurd plot wouldn't hold up for an instant. What child would believe that enduring a journey of several days in a nightmarishly packed, lavatory-less cattle-truck was all part of a game? ("I didn't like the train," he plaintively says to his father when they arrive at the camp. I bet he didn't!) Why does he never appear to miss his mother? Since Guido passes on his own meagre food rations to the boy, how does he himself manage to keep looking so robust? The answer to these (and a score of similar questions) is that Life is Beautiful is not just a comic fable but a fairy-tale, a fairy-tale in the manner of the brothers Grimm, except that it's set not in a gingerbread house but in a gingerbread Auschwitz.
The film has been criticised in some quarters for travestying the horrors of its setting, but that strikes me as its greatest strength. Instead of endeavouring to mimic the trappings and textures of Hell, Benigni has recourse to a lexicon of Holocaust signifiers which are already, as it were, in the public domain. The inmates are dressed in striped pyjamas, but they're not especially emaciated (which would have necessitated the obscenity of advertising for skeletal extras, "Jewish" types being particularly appreciated). The women's heads would seem to be shaven but, since almost all of them wear headscarves, their degradation is implied, not imitated. And when, in a chilling sequence, Guido at last comes face to face with a mound of martyred cadavers, it's perfectly obvious that the image is a painted tableau. Since I'm convinced that the use of such a backdrop was dictated not by trivial budgetary constraints but out of respect for the real martyrs of the real camps, that was perhaps the point in the film when, for all its flaws, I realised I was definitively on its side.
What are those flaws? Flaw, really, albeit a fundamental one. Fairy-tales, as we know from Bettelheim, are crucial to a child's psychological formation and eventual purchase on adult society primarily because their narratives have been designed to confront him or her, within the framework of stylised fantasy, with the reality of evil's existence in the world. Alas, presumably hoping to offer his public the ultimate feelgood evening out, Benigni shied away from filming the one scene that now seems missing from his film, the scene in which the scales finally fall from the boy's eyes. Even the father's supreme sacrifice happens off-screen, out of his offspring's sight. Because Benigni knew how far to go too far, but no further, Life is Beautiful is (at least from the child's viewpoint) a fairy-tale without witches, ogres or goblins, a fable without a moral, a game as futile as would be Snakes and Ladders without any snakes. If he had dared to shoot such a scene, then the film would have been a masterpiece.
As I say, it sometimes comes very close. There's a moment when the little boy gravely announces to his father that he's just heard they're all to be turned into buttons and soap. "Buttons and soap! That'll be the day!" Benigni answers with a carefully crafted grin. "You fell for that old joke?" And he repeats, "That'll be the day!" He's right. Turning human beings into buttons and soap? It has to be a joke. Yet that was the day.
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