The Critics: Fairy-tales after Auschwitz

cinema

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'