The Critics: Fairy-tales after Auschwitz


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
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Arts and Entertainment
Bono throws water at the crowd while the Edge watches as they perform in the band's first concert of their new world tour in Vancouver

MusicThey're running their own restaurants

The main entrance to the BBC headquarters in London
TV & Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

    Solved after 200 years

    The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

    Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
    Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

    Sunken sub

    Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

    Age of the selfie

    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
    Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

    Not so square

    How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
    Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

    Still carrying the torch

    The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

    ...but history suggests otherwise
    The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

    The bald truth

    How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
    Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

    Tour de France 2015

    Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
    Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

    A new beginning for supersonic flight?

    Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
    I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

    I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

    Latest on the Labour leadership contest
    Froome seals second Tour de France victory

    Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

    Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
    Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

    The uses of sarcasm

    'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
    A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

    No vanity, but lots of flair

    A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
    Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

    In praise of foraging

    How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food