Life Is Beautiful: Reception, Allegory, and Holocaust Laughter
Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air may enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.—Leon Trotsky, letter, Feb. 27, 1940
In a 1987 essay entitled “Holocaust Laughter,” Terrence Des Pres notes that “one of the surprising characteristics of the film Shoah is how often Claude Lanzmann and some of his witnesses take up a sardonic tone, a kind of mocking irony that on occasion comes close to laughter.” Observing that Lanzmann “seems deliberate about it,” Des Pres concludes that “if Shoah is a sign of the times, we may suppose that artistic representation of the Holocaust is changing—that it is trying a more flexible mode of response.” 1 Eleven years later, two films would prove his uncanny intuition right: Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful and Radu Mihaileanu’s Train of Life. 2 Whereas the latter has not thus far raised much controversy, Life Is Beautiful has been and is the focus of unbridled media attention, enormous popular success, and critical venom. This article aims to prove that Life Is Beautiful is an important film that, judging from the way it was received by several critics, might [End Page 47] unfortunately be overlooked by scholars. In the first section, I shall discuss the film’s reception; in the second, I shall map out a textual analysis through eyes searching for “the pleasure of the text.”
The film has become a sort of metal detector whose alarm bell signals ideas, defects, goodness, hypocrisy or wickedness in people’s DNA.—E. Gruber, International Herald Tribune, Jan. 21, 1998
The Award for the Best Jewish Experience, obtained by Benigni’s daring project at the Jerusalem International Film Festival in 1998, is truly “a blasphemy,” for “the Holocaust misrepresentations of Life Is Beautiful [are] unforgivably obscene,” but “there are further horrors beyond the movie: ahistoric film critics who slaver over it, fuzzy-thinking crowds who embrace it,” and favorable Jewish re/viewers “who definitely should know better.” Thus ends Gerald Peary’s review in The Boston Phoenix, leaving those who “don’t have the honor of being Jewish” with no choice but to feel intimidated. 3 Peary’s strategy of moral intimidation is clear from his review’s opening move: “Peary? My family name was Pisarevsky, changed at Ellis Island by American officials. My parents are Russian-born Jews. What you see below is, I suppose, an angry Jewish column.” Peary’s anger, however, is less cognitive than rhetorical, a justification for dismissing the film and its author while feeling good about it. Peary even calls Benigni, whose father spent two years in a Nazi labor camp, a “revisionist.” 4
Peary’s is but the extreme case in a series of negative reviews that appeared in several major publications (e.g. The Village Voice, Time, and The New Republic) upon the film’s release in the United States. 5 Their dismissal of Life Is Beautiful often adopts Peary’s strategy: moral indignation. Only J. Hoberman, in the Voice, attempts a reading of the film, his anger being a cognitive tool that produces textual knowledge rather than moral outcry. In keeping with his Marxist perspective, he drags Steven Spielberg along with Benigni into the mud, for “it was Schindler’s List that made mass extermination safe for mass consumption.”
The existence of a large number of non-angry Jewish re/viewers belies the assumption that being Jewish should automatically lead to hating Life Is Beautiful. Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation [End Page 48] League, was approached by leaders of the Italian-Jewish community concerned by and divided on the film. Before viewing it, Foxman quipped that a comic film set in Auschwitz “cannot be done, [it] is trivializing.” He changed his mind afterward: “The film is so poignant, it is so sensitive, it is so informed by creative genius, that the answer is—I give it a wholehearted endorsement.” 6 Likewise, in the Jerusalem Report, Daniel Kotzin argues: “Throughout, Benigni is walking the thinnest of lines—taking the risk in almost every camp scene of lapsing into the offensive, of cheapening his subject. It would take only one false note, one poorly judged wisecrack, to destroy the delicate fabric. Yet extraordinarily—the more so, given Benigni’s madcap movie-star persona—there are no slips, the poignant balance is maintained.” 7
Lest we too believe, with Peary, that Jews favorable to the film “should know better,” attitudes toward Life Is Beautiful depend less on whether one is Jewish or Gentile than on other factors. In some cases, it is plain political animosity in moral garb, as with Giuliano Ferrara’s vicious campaign from the pulpit of the right-wing newspaper Il Foglio. Ferrara, on Silvio Berlusconi’s payroll, is merely settling the score with Benigni, who, at the time of Berlusconi’s brief leadership of the Italian government, openly voiced his contempt for the Italian media tycoon.
In most cases, however, the appreciation of Life Is Beautiful is made difficult, if not impossible, by the presence of an obstacle that often goes undetected. To understand the nature of this obstacle, let us look at the field constituted by all those who write or talk about films from a position of some authority, from local or campus paper reviewers to academic scholars and high brow critics. An examination of the critical judgments on Life Is Beautiful, conventionally framed within a low-, middle-, and high-brow hierarchy, reveals that—within the limits inherent in all generalizations—the higher the reviewer’s position the more negative is the review. A case in point is what happened in Boston and New York. The two major newspapers, The Boston Globe and The New York Times, wrote on the film in enthusiastic terms, but the weekly “cultural” magazines aiming at more sophisticated readers, The Boston Phoenix and The Village Voice, panned it. Likewise, most of the film specialists that I have interviewed either shrugged their shoulders or expressed contempt, but students were enthusiastic, and so were several academics from disciplines other than film studies (including Jewish studies). We are faced, then, with an obstacle that leaves popular or non-specialized audiences and those who negotiate film ratings for them unaffected, an obstacle to which middle- and high-brow film “authorities” are more vulnerable. This is not surprising, for “the obstacle” belongs to the slippery terrain that French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu ascribes to habitus as “the [End Page 49] incorporated form of one’s class position and the conditionings imposed by it”: taste. 8 Taking Life Is Beautiful seriously goes against high cultural taste.
Taste, Bourdieu never tires of repeating, is the result of internalized economic and cultural capital. Academic film scholars and high-brow critics (people like Peary and I) usually belong to “the fractions (relatively) richest in cultural capital and (relatively) poorest in economic capital.” Artistic consumption is for us one of the most “distinctive” socio-cultural practices. It yields distinction in the form of symbolic profit/status, and it distinguishes us from those who do not know better. By displaying refined tastes in the arts, we constantly (re)define and (re)position ourselves:
What is at stake is indeed “personality,” i.e., the quality of the person which is affirmed in the capacity to appropriate an object of quality. The objects endowed with the greatest distinctive power are those which most clearly attest the quality of their appropriation, that is the quality of those who appropriate them, because their appropriation demands time and skills that, insofar as they require a long investment of time—like musical or pictorial culture—cannot be acquired in haste or by proxy, and which therefore appear as the surest indications of the intrinsic qualities of the person. 9
We tend, therefore, to valorize those films that show we do not fall for the baits of the entertainment industry (sentimentalism, media-hype, easy-to-understand plots, immediate pleasures). To complicate things further, we do not appreciate being reminded of all this, as if recognizing that the social function of our cultural habits diminish their value. Our tastes, choices, and reactions must appear as the result of freedom, talent, and intelligence rather than of socio-cultural logic, apprenticeship, and privilege.
Benigni’s physical, comic style has little potential for yielding distinction. In Italy, his films have a mass following but are commonly shunned by “serious” critics. Indeed, dignified aloofness typifies high culture’s reception of Benigni’s films. For example, the intellectually sophisticated, Italian film journal Duel did not offer a substantive reading of Life Is Beautiful (which they had done for Titanic). Likewise, in France, the prestigious Cahiers du Cinema refused to give the film even the negative recognition of an attack, as testified by Thierry Jousse’s report from Cannes: “a totally disproportioned Jury’s special Grand prize for Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful which deserves neither its detractors’ angered, grand moral declarations nor the excessive praise of its supporters who unhesitatingly compare it to Chaplin (!).” 10 Not surprisingly, [End Page 50] Peary situates himself “in the minority who find Benigni a bothersome amalgam of agitated tics and feeble jokes.” 11 Had Life Is Beautiful not touched a raw nerve in the Judeo-Christian body, it would have been met with the same fate as others: silence.
Benigni is aware of this situation; it is the product, after all, of the choice he made when he developed a “popular” comic style (comicità popolare). Drawing a distinction between humor and “the comic,” he likens them to eroticism and pornography, respectively, and jokingly declares himself a pornographer, too physical and unsophisticated to please refined spirits. 12 Much as he may seem at peace with the populism of his comedies, Benigni has now and then manifested his resentment of the way in which his films are typecast as “low.” Interviews with him are filled with high cultural references (such as to Schopenhauer) that often surface in his films. In fact, his respect for and increasing appropriation of a traditional cultural capital (such as his recent public reading of Dante’s Inferno) betray his anxiety over a seemingly impossible promotion of his comedies to a higher status.
Benigni’s desire for a higher status is less a symptom of ambition than of a genuine wish that his ideas on comedy and laughter be taken seriously. Convinced that “laughter can save us,” Benigni resents comedy’s ancillary role. 13 His latest films aim to bestow legitimacy on comedy by reframing topical issues through the subversive lens of laughter. With Johnny Stecchino (1991), for example, he confronted one of Italy’s worst scourges, the Mafia. As I recall, Umberto Eco argued that Benigni’s satire of a Mafioso’s masculinity was an effective deterrent against the fascination that the gangster image exerts on young men—more effective than the countless realistic films made on the subject. 14 In Il Mostro (The Monster, 1994), his depiction of a petty thief mistaken as a serial rapist was in many ways a regression to his earlier style of predominantly sexual jokes. On that occasion, however, Benigni spoke of “the big challenge of transforming a dramatic subject into a comedy.” 15
Life Is Beautiful constitutes Benigni’s attempt to maximize this challenge and prove his comedies’ potential: “I had this strong desire to put myself, my comic persona, in an extreme situation. . . . [T]he ultimate extreme situation is the extermination camp, almost the symbol of our century, the negative one, the worst thing imaginable.” 16 The Holocaust then is not an end but a means—“I did not want to make a film about the Holocaust” 17 —the means to prove that (his type of) comedy can respectfully treat the Holocaust and suggest an outlook that tragedy is unequipped to convey. It should be noted here that Benigni’s project, far from cheapening it, confirms the Holocaust as history’s worst nightmare and re-inscribes it in the collective memory through an unusual code.
Although a means to an extraneous end, the Holocaust was not [End Page 51] cynically exploited by Benigni as a sure attention-getter. The proof that Life Is Beautiful is not a cynical market move lies in the historical and cultural awareness that sustains the script. 18 Take the title, for example. The film’s working title was “Buongiorno Principessa!,” a tribute to the phrase that introduces Guido’s (the protagonist, played by Benigni) mythopoetic power to the audience. During post-production, Benigni came across the statement “Life Is Beautiful” in Trotsky’s letters, written when the communist leader, barricaded in his Mexican compound, feared that his days were numbered. Trotsky’s words immediately resonated with the spirit that animates Life Is Beautiful and became the definitive title. As such, it operates on multiple levels. In everyday language, the expression Dai! La vita è bella! (Come on! Life is beautiful!) is often employed to cheer someone up; it asks us to look at the causes of our despair from a broader perspective. “Life is beautiful” functions on a cinematic level as well, for it links Benigni’s film with Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and the optimism for which the Italian American director is (in)famous. Moreover, unlike “Buongiorno Principessa!,” the new title has no apparent narrative justification, puzzles viewers, and forces them to ask questions. Benigni was certainly aware that, while nobody would recognize the reference to Trotsky, the title “Life Is Beautiful” would expose the film to further critical venom—“Can you imagine anyone who actually survived the camps saying that?” predictably asks Peary. Had Benigni wished to soften the prejudice and suspicion that a film marketed as “a Holocaust comedy” understandably aroused, he would have kept the original title. Evidently, “artistic” motivations had priority over marketing diplomacy. By calling, as it were, Trotsky to the witness stand, the new title offers the example of someone who celebrated the beauty of life under oppressive circumstances, someone who, like Guido in the film, was Jewish but did not make Jewishness the basis of his personal identity.
Ironically, those who could make the most out of the new title, high-brow film critics and/or academic scholars, seem uninterested in doing so because their attention is elsewhere. Benigni’s efforts are likely to go unnoticed since, superficially, Life Is Beautiful has all the qualities that most film specialists despise. Their habitual distaste for Benigni’s slapstick is exacerbated by the film’s popular success and by the feel-good, Capra-esque humanism that oozes from nearly all favorable reviews. 19 Then add the sentimentalism inherent in the story of a father with his innocent child in a death camp. From Bicycle Thief to Cinema Paradiso, Italian films have often won the favor of their audiences through the sentimental powerhouse of children in trouble. It is an emotional terrorism that works for “them” (the popular audience) but not for “us.” And as if the obstacles of physical comedy, sentimentalism, and media [End Page 52] hype were not enough, Life Is Beautiful is not “beautiful.” Benigni is not the type of director who will astonish you with sweeping camera movements against the beat editing, non-narrative detours. His films are not for those who value style over content, difficulty over simplicity.
It is my contention that Benigni’s unsuitability to high-brow taste has prevented (and will continue to prevent) most critics and film scholars from taking Life Is Beautiful seriously. Which is too bad. If they did, they would discover what I myself was able to discover in the wake of a fortuitous event that confirms the legitimacy of my hypothesis. I know all about the intellectual bias against Benigni’s vis comica because I held that bias myself.
When the manager of the Key Sunday Cinema Club invited me to Washington, D.C., to be the guest speaker at a review screening of Life Is Beautiful, I hesitated. Much as I respected Benigni’s long-standing militancy as political satirist, I was no fan of his movies. Luckily, however, I accepted and set out to do my homework: articles, interviews, and multiple viewings of the videotape. My first impression was skeptical and, had it not been for my responsibilities, I would not have watched it again. But I did, and, as every film scholar knows, it is the second viewing that tells “the truth” about a film. Released from the duty of following the plot and from the pressure of laughing at gags unsuited to my taste, I began appreciating Life Is Beautiful’s quotes, internal rhymes, and intertextual links. An allegorical structure of sorts was emerging. And, far from cheapening the Holocaust, the film prodded me to know more.
The war against the Jews was in many ways a war against the imagination (and at bottom the Jewish conception of God): to suppress the workings of that imagination—to deny the sufferings of the Jews any sort of symbolic representation—would make that a war that Hitler won.—Leslie Epstein, Boston Jewish Film Festival program
A few people I know joked about how they went to see the much-discussed, touching film about a child in the Holocaust, and after half an hour they felt puzzled: “Did I enter the wrong theater?” they all asked themselves. With the exception of two premonitions (immediately defused by Guido’s optimistic and childishly naive nature), the first hour of Life Is Beautiful is pure farce and fairy-tale romance, with no hint of the [End Page 53] impending tragedy. Inevitably, detractors hissed that the first half betrays the authors’ real interests—making people laugh—and proves their facile approach to Jewish reality in 1939. 20 Undoubtedly, the optimistic Guido is not a realistic portrait of the average Italian Jew in 1939. But even more unrealistic is his son Giosuè (played by Giorgio Cantarini) hiding out in his father’s barrack, or the cryptic image of prisoners carrying anvils all day every day. 21 Everything in this fairy tale is unrealistic or, better, has no verisimilitude. If we go to see Life Is Beautiful expecting reality, then we are in the wrong theater. That even sophisticated critics, normally suspicious of the expectations typical of mass audiences, resorted to criticizing the film on the basis of its violations of credibility proves the extent to which Benigni’s parable asked them to do what they were unwilling to do: treat Life Is Beautiful as if it had been directed by someone they respect. To many, of course, the Holocaust allows for no artistic license; its depiction must obey the rules of tragic realism—the only mode/mood commonly held fit for fictions on a reality that vastly surpassed fiction. But, “according to what I read, saw and felt in the victims’ accounts, I realized that nothing in a film could even come close to the reality of what happened. You can’t show unimaginable horror—you can only ever show less than what it was. So I did not want audiences to look for realism in my movie.” 22
In fact, Life Is Beautiful intentionally conceals Guido’s Jewishness for about 45 minutes and rids the film’s first half of tragedy. Benigni’s choice emphasizes an uncontested historical reality: the “Italian-ness” of the Jews, their participation in Italian history at all levels. The storehouse that Guido’s uncle Eliseo (Giustino Durano) lends to Guido and his friend Ferruccio has a bed on which Garibaldi, the symbol of the Italian unification process, allegedly slept. Eliseo also mentions an original manuscript of one of Petrarch’s biographies—Francesco Petrarca being the name of the school to which the fascist official is due to explain the Race Manifesto, and where Guido/Benigni gives us a funny and intelligent satire of racism’s arbitrariness.
Until the late 1930s, Italian Jews lived, loved, and laughed like anyone else in Italy. This is not to re-propose the convenient stereotype of “the good Italians even when fascist.” Puncturing this idyllic image is necessary, but so is recognizing that there is some truth to the stereotype. Antisemitism did not enter official fascist ideology until race laws went into effect in 1938—Mussolini himself had a Jewish mistress, Margherita Sarfatti, until 1936. “The vast majority of assimilated and nonpolitical Italian Jews reacted to the racial laws with shock and disbelief,” reports Susan Zuccotti in what has been called the definitive study of the Holocaust in Italy. 23 Although “every Italian Jew was affected,” 24 the [End Page 54] situation was far from being homogeneous. There was even the case of fascist Jews who blamed the Race Laws on Zionism and non-patriotic Jews. 25 Many Jews downplayed discrimination as a symptom of Mussolini’s opportunism, which aimed to win Hitler’s favor and to create the possibility of forfeiture of assets as well as bribes and corruption Italian style: “On July 13, 1939, the government introduced an Aryanization program, by which a special commission could simply declare arbitrarily that a Jew was not a Jew.” 26 In this tragic farce, Guido’s oblivious optimism in 1939 constitutes an absurd response to an absurd reality.
The intentional creation of an optimist Jew who averts his eyes from the signs of impending tragedy is more than reflection on the advantages of dis-identity; it also serves architectural reasons. By refusing to make Guido and Eliseo icons of a foretold disaster, the film lets comedy reign supreme throughout the first half. Cleverly, something similar, but of opposite sign, happens in the second. Shortly after the prisoners arrive at the camp, we have the film’s funniest scene: Guido “translates” for his son’s benefit the camp rules as they are shouted out by one of the prison guards. It is the beginning of the “game.” It is also the exhaustion of the film’s vis comica, and we practically stop laughing. Benigni’s gags are virtually nonexistent, and viewers’ facial muscles are too busy containing emotions and tears to afford the liberating luxury of sincere laughter. “In the second half, there’s only one joke, the game” commented an academic friend of mine. He meant it as a criticism. While agreeing with his observation, I do not regard it as a flaw—quite the contrary. The lack of jokes is, of course, a sign of Benigni’s respectful restraint. But, as happened with the first half, letting go of comedy’s prime objective serves architectural reasons. It purifies, as it were, the second half, so that tears replace laughter, fear replaces optimism. Life Is Beautiful has a remarkable architecture because it creates a filmic space that is virtually symmetrical.
It is, however, a weird symmetry. Far from producing the sense of balance and comforting harmony traditionally associated with it, symmetry here disorients viewers by forcing them to experience the anxiety of an unexpected schizophrenic attack. The film splices together two halves that do not belong together because they are, in fact, recalcitrant opposites, one the negation of the other: slapstick comedy and tragedy. The legitimacy of the film’s aspirations to be treated seriously starts here, in the deliberate and uncommon short-circuiting of two modes of representation that may tolerate, and even profit by, mixing but cannot be merely juxtaposed without seeing their identities and effects unpredictably altered. Life Is Beautiful is not just tragi-comic but it is first comic and then tragic. There is quite a difference between thinking of a film as [End Page 55] a mixture of comedy and tragedy, the tragi-comic, or as a juxtaposition of two symmetrical and mutually negating spaces. The former is a healthy, if occasionally disturbing, mix aiming to make comedy serious by bestowing gravity on its lightness or, obversely, to defuse the depression provoked by tragedy. The latter is uncanny and unsettling, potentially sickening and always disorienting, insofar as spectators are forced into a schizoid experience. In a sense Life Is Beautiful successfully helps its viewers to imagine what many Italian Jews must have felt, the eruption of absurdity and the transformation of one reality into its opposite. This is how the film is faithful to reality—it dramatizes its deepest implications. To put it differently, Life Is Beautiful is faithful to reality in spirit and not in the letter.
The film’s architecture, its global structure, is too deliberately dual not to become significant in and of itself. Try to visualize these two halves, disposed one after the other, and opposed to one another as white and black would be. I am proposing to look at the film’s formal arrangement as a spatio-temporal allegory. Spatially, the two opposites are kept separate and yet overdetermine one another, a bit like the Yin-Yang symbol, where the black and the white are well defined and symmetrically juxtaposed but each contain a speck of the other as a memento of their interdependence. Temporally, as Benigni himself reminds us through a humorous pun that works only in Italian, we are reminded of the devastating wisdom of the Bible’s most mysteriously modern book, the Kohelet: “A time to laugh, a time to cry.” 27 Life Is Beautiful’s deliberately strident, dual structure is then allegorical, as could perhaps to be expected because of Benigni’s recent interest in Dante. The Divine Comedy’s structure of 3 times 33 cantos was itself an indication of the mysterious reality of the trinity; likewise, Life Is Beautiful’s architectural schizophrenia suggests the irreconcilable duality in human history. It also points, as we shall see, at Taoist wisdom as the only possible way to accept and live such duality while transcending it in thought.
Seen in the light of the film’s architectural allegory, both ending and beginning deserve attention. The ending seems to repropose schizophrenia by first violating then upholding the rules of comedy. Predictably, detractors concentrated only on the happy half, on the “many, many from his camp (too many) who survived” and who “seem immediately happy.” 28 True, there is a sunny feeling about the last few minutes of the film, but it cannot be seen in isolation from the fact that Guido, the protagonist of what is perceived as a comedy, dies. Benigni reminds us that he has created a film persona out of his string of comedies, that he is a bit like Donald Duck, and his death in Life Is Beautiful is as jolting to [End Page 56] most of his followers as the death of Donald Duck would be. “I am really Benigni in the film, and children identify with me. They ask their parents: ‘Why . . . did they kill Benigni?’ The parents can only answer by saying that he is Jewish. So, the children ask, ‘What does it mean to be Jewish?’” 29
The film’s beginning is retrospectively so revealing that viewers should be forced to see it again after the end. The credits flash on the images in an unusually slow and unpredictable manner, and cover three sequences. In the first, we get a shot of Guido, in a camp uniform, walking with his son asleep in his arms. Fog makes vision difficult, and a voice-over reminds us that the film we are about to see is a fairy tale (and therefore demands the suspension of the rules of realism). As if to make sure that we do not miss the prescription of fabulous semiotic lenses, “fairy tale” is uttered twice in the space of one short sentence. Also, (Italian) viewers are immediately aware that the voice-over is not Benigni’s. Whose is it then? Only at the film’s very end, in the scene of the “many, many, too many” survivors in the sun, do we find out that the voice-over is Giosuè’s, who then retrospectively becomes the narrator of the film. Life Is Beautiful is the grateful recollection of a son who commemorates his father’s sacrifice in a spirit that would have pleased him.
Giosuè’s voice-over begins and ends the film, imparting a circular shape to it. But the first shot’s pivotal function extends beyond the voice-over. It is also a flash forward, for, some 20 minutes before the end, we return to the same shot. Walking with Giosuè in his arms, Guido mutters to himself: “What if this were nothing but a dream?” And no sooner does he stop mumbling than we get a POV-shot of a heap of corpses: what looked like fog is in fact smoke from incinerated bodies. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a more effective way of making the first sequence resonate with the rest of the film.
The second sequence contains, barely disguised in the sudden eruption of freewheeling slapstick, a ritual invocation to the creative muses and another prescriptive gesture. The scene per se is unfunny, a predictable brake failure in a car speeding downhill. In the allegorical scheme, it draws a tempting analogy between the zigzagging vehicle containing the author and the film itself. Significantly, the invoked deities are Chaos and Bacchus, and one can hardly imagine more appropriate choices, since the ideas of refusing to follow a predictable structure, of erupting disorder, and of the willful straying of Rimbaud’s “drunken boat,” to name just a few, are all evoked. The image of a brakeless car that cuts through the fields downhill, however silly, is then at once the material support to a slapstick routine (it has, in other words, a diegetic role) and [End Page 57] an apt allegorization of the text as an intoxicated/intoxicating fairy tale that will stray not only from the rules of realism but also from those of the fairy tale. It is also the film’s attempt to convince skeptical minds that Life Is Beautiful’s slapstick is sustained by a textual awareness modeled after classic texts.
The third sequence shows Guido’s accidental encounter with his princess-to-be, Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), and offers the first example of what is in fact the true common thread uniting the two halves, the one thing capable of running through both “the comic” and “the tragic”: the game (il gioco). The game does not start in the camp, it starts with the courtship of Dora—hence the film’s working title, “Buongiorno Principessa!” The game is the ability to transform each event into another story, the possibility that what happens in the unfolding narrative called reality may have another meaning in the make-believe text spun by Guido’s imagination.
The game opened by “Buongiorno Principessa!” consists, then, in the art of living life as if it were an allegory to which our imagination can provide the key. Each occurrence can be lived in its humdrum, material significance, and/or it can also be seen as the indication of another text. When Guido calls out “Maria!” and the key drops from the window, he is successfully superimposing his own mythical story onto normal, everyday events. By saying “Buongiorno Principessa,” he spellbinds Dora into believing that she too is part of a fairy tale. “Buongiorno Principessa” is the invitation to enter a mythical world in which our life overflows with secret connections and possibilities within our reach provided that we awaken to them. The game, then, has a name: spirituality. Spirituality, of any kind, is going to demand a similar move from you, that you stop thinking that our life has only one dimension/reading. You can reject the game/spirituality, and roast and boast in the material world; or you can conceive the possibility that everything that happens here and now, in history, can be wrenched away from a narrative that is increasingly devoid of sense, and can be grafted onto another story, another realm. Understandably, for leftist Hoberman this is “nonsense” and amounts to lying to children and spectators by re-proposing the opium of the people. He must be credited, however, for having seen, more lucidly than most celebrants, Life Is Beautiful’s spiritual dimension. Indeed, our take on the game depends on our willingness to take seriously the sudden eruption of spiritual needs that characterizes this end of the millennium: where do we stand? And the question of the film’s alleged revisionism should be thus reformulated: is it morally legitimate, when representing the Holocaust, to suggest that spirituality provides the key to unlock the camps’ doors? Regardless of the answer, I am sure that a [End Page 58] great deal of the millions locked in the camps sought to flee with “the weapons of the spirit.”
The game is also at one with the fairy tale—or, better, the game consists in the ability of living your life as if it were a fairy tale, a mythical world populated by gods and monsters. The Holocaust was the result of Nazi terror and Judeo-Christian history, but it was also the possession of some humans by the very demons they had unleashed. It is not a matter of choosing one reading instead of the other—both explain what happened. That is what life as an allegory means. That is why Life Is Beautiful’s fairy tale can lift us from the Holocaust, not because the Holocaust has been cheapened but because our spirit has been enlarged. Furthermore, as a fairy tale, Benigni’s film is itself an enactment of the game. It is the dream that comedic imagination triggers in our minds once we take seriously the question Guido asked shortly before discovering the heap of corpses: “What if this were nothing but a dream?” Differently put, the film/fairy tale/game suggests that we regard even the worst of nightmares as parts of a dream.
It is time to confront the air of Eastern philosophies that transpires from Life Is Beautiful. I do not know whether Benigni has joined the ranks of the many Buddheo-Christians populating the Western hemisphere these days, but to better understand this film, the game and the fairy tale, we must now enlarge a detail in the film and make a philosophical detour.
Early in the film, Guido hears from his friend Ferruccio (Sergio Bustric) a pop version of Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Ferruccio claims he is able to sleep anytime he wants to by merely exercising his will, and he credits the German philosopher with divulging such power. Guido is intrigued by it. He will use “Schopenhauer” successfully a couple of times. He makes Dora turn around in the theater, and, above all, he wills the S.S. dog away from Giosuè’s hiding place. It all seems like an innocent, low-brow, and basically inaccurate use of a philosopher who is still popular enough to suffer all sort of appropriations from “below.” Benigni, however, seems to be aware that there is more to Schopenhauer than this, that the German philosopher was/is a site of competing readings, and that his philosophy matters.
After Marx’s decline in popularity, Schopenhauer has been the most widely read among the nineteenth-century “greats,” mainly because he was the first Western thinker to incorporate elements of Eastern philosophy into his system. Buddhism and the Upanishads had a large influence upon him and interacted with Kant to give rise to formulations that would subsequently trickle down in many beliefs and ideologies. Schopenhauer’s central idea is that life is regulated by the Will-to-Live, which [End Page 59] is not of the mind but is rooted in the very fabric of our bodies. We think that our mental representations are autonomous, but everything that we think is subordinated to the physical duty of avoiding suffering and empowering our lives, even if this entails making other people suffer. It is an impassive and impersonal mechanism (on the surface somewhat reminiscent of his contemporary, Darwin) that Schopenhauer regards with a wisdom and a fatalism borrowed from Eastern thought (and easily mistaken for pessimism). Life is a game, and the ultimate deity has the dual face of Shiva, whose cosmic dance at once symbolizes creation and destruction, laughter and tears. Prompted perhaps by leftovers of Christ’s most ideal message, Schopenhauer theorized the possibility of rising above selfishness. He regarded Mahayana Buddhism as the example of a possible, if difficult, escape from the rules of the selfish game played by the Will-to-Live in all organisms. Some exceptional human beings may reach such a level of empathy with the suffering of others that they come to regard it as if it were their own. At that stage, where all suffering matters, these extraordinary individuals stop obeying the tyrannical will and practice compassion—or, to put it in Buddhist terms, they become Bodhisattvas.
We are now in a position to appreciate the complexity of the use that Life Is Beautiful makes of Schopenhauer. In the first place, the fact that Schopenhauer is a German philosopher resonates with a film on the Holocaust. This is particularly true because Schopenhauer was appropriated by the Nazis (through Nietzsche’s Will-to-Power). The Will-to-Live that Schopenhauer regarded as the rule of the game-called-life became, in the Nazi reading of the philosopher, a legitimation for their aggressive search of a lebensraum—living space. Benigni/Guido then pits one misreading of Schopenhauer against another. What might go lost in the farce is the subtle irony of a film that takes a philosopher (mis)used by the Nazis and plays him against them, thus revealing their ignorance as well as the possibility of oppositional readings. Guido shows the possibility of a pop reading of Schopenhauer that does not result in Nazism but in a New Age-ish “fuzzy-thinking.” But the film also offers a practical example of a life made beautiful by an individual’s sacrifice modeled after a more accurate reading of the philosopher. For Guido regards life as a dream, a game. He detaches himself from his contingent suffering. As a numinous father, he exemplifies the individual who overcomes the gravitational pull of the Will-to-Live and sacrifices himself.
Schopenhauer’s role in the allegorical scheme is but an example, undoubtedly the most substantive, of the pleasures offered by a close reading of the film. The Nazi doctor’s name, Lessing (Horst Bucholdt), [End Page 60] evokes the author of the 1778-79 play Nathan the Wise, that famous championing of German religious tolerance toward the Jews. When Lessing stealthily draws Guido aside, Life Is Beautiful makes viewers hope that the doctor intends to help. But Lessing looses sleep over a riddle that he cannot solve, and, oblivious to Guido’s reality, asks him for help. Is the film suggesting that writing (or making films) against oppression is futile unless backed by practice? Is it a sarcastic commentary on the value of intellectuals and their riddles? Be that as it may, the character of Lessing haunts us as much as he is himself haunted. And there is another ironic reference to a German “great” in the film: composer Offenbach, whose Barcarolle we hear twice, and who was, yes, Jewish. I could easily continue playing with the characters’ names in the context of the film’s allegory, or retrieving visual quotes and intertextual links. For brevity’s sake, let me just cite one last example.
The father’s and the son’s names, Guido and Giosuè Orefice, respectively, function on both narrative levels: the historical and the allegorical, the real and the game. In Voices from the Holocaust, Sylvia Rothchild interviews only two Italian Jews, Ora Kohn from Turin and Gastone Orefice from Livorno, in Tuscany, the region from which both Benigni and Guido come (the film’s first half takes place in the Tuscan town of Arezzo). Fragments of Rothchild’s interview with Gastone Orefice were later published in Zuccotti’s The Italians and the Holocaust, a book that Benigni consulted while researching the film. Gastone Orefice’s testimony fits Life Is Beautiful’s design perfectly: “The majority of the Jews were more Italian than Jews,” he says, “and thought they were living in a good regime—until the persecution began.” 30 In addition to being a Jewish last name with a referential dimension, “Orefice” means “goldsmith” and therefore has a surplus of symbolic potential—spiritual wisdom as alchemical work. Thus, by naming both of his heroes G. Orefice, Benigni increased their signifying potential, their semiotic brea(d)th.
As to “Guido,” besides being a man’s name with a famous antecedent in Italian cinema—the spiritually starved, albeit self-absorbed, protagonist of Fellini’s Eight and a Half—“guido” is also a form of the verb “guidare,” which means at once “to drive” and “to guide.” Leaving unexplored the driving symbolism (although the film introduces its textuality as a brakeless car), let me concentrate on Guido-the-guide. We have seen how Guido’s game (and Benigni’s film) guides Giosuè out of the Holocaust. Giosuè of course is the name of the biblical leader who guided the Jews into the promised land of Canaan. Guido is then he who enabled Joshua to be the final guide of his people; he is the father, or, the Father, he who propels the Exodus and sustains the crossing of the desert [End Page 61] (and the Bible is full of God’s rules for a “game,” the correct playing of which warrants the promised land). As every Jew sadly knows, even something so absolutely horrible as the Holocaust had its positive sides: the return to Israel. The abbiamo vinto! (we won!) at the end of Life Is Beautiful is not the happy ending that seals a trivialized Holocaust—it is the cry of triumph with which a people marked for extinction transformed their darkest hour into a new beginning. But there is more. Giosuè/Joshua/Yeshua is not only the name of the prophet of the sixth book in the Old Testament. It is also the Jewish name for Jesus. In the film, Giosuè materializes suddenly, halfway through, as the product of the fabulous love story between Dora and Guido. I am not suggesting that Joshua is a Christ figure. If we remember, however, that Christians, and Italian Catholics especially, have the bad habit of forgetting Jesus’ Jewishness, we may appreciate this additional ramification of the son’s name, indeed a reminder to all Italians that their “cultural hero” is in fact the Other, someone they themselves persecuted (while blaming the Jewish Other for it).
Let me conclude by returning to “Holocaust laughter.” Life Is Beautiful is not the first film to try a comedic approach in the depiction of Nazi monstrosity. Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940; Guido’s number in the camp is the same as Chaplin’s Jewish barber’s), Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942), and Mel Brooks’ 1983 remake of the latter had already done that. Of course Chaplin’s and Lubitsch’s films were pre-Holocaust, but they can be considered precedents of Life Is Beautiful. Their authors thought that comedic spirit and laughter would constitute a weapon and a medicine, a response of resilience to an enemy that expected only tragedy’s lament. There is then a mysterious, “lost” Jerry Lewis film, The Day the Clown Cried (1971), reportedly about a clown called on to sugarcoat extermination. Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties (1976) brought grotesque comedy to the camp, but it did not really touch the Holocaust directly.
In addition to these films, there is a small but significant body of literary works that dared to stray from realism and high drama variously to introduce “the comic”: Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (1948!); Andre Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just (1959); Jurek Becker’s Jacob the Liar (1969); Leslie Epstein’s King of the Jews (1979); and Aron Appelfeld’s Badenheim 1939 (1980). Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986) successfully proved that even comics could respect the Holocaust and provide yet another tool for the dissemination of its memory.
Of course, the crucial theoretical piece in the debate sparked by the juxtaposition of laughter and the Holocaust is the essay with which my [End Page 62] piece began, Des Pres’ “Holocaust Laughter.” Here, Des Pres argues that This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, King of the Jews, and Maus not only respected the Holocaust (in spite of their generic transgressions) but also turned out to be more effective than most tragic, realistic portrayals of it. Because “it’s not fear and sorrow we need more of, but undaunted vision. The paradox of the comic approach is that by setting things at a distance it permits us a tougher, more active response” (286). Des Pres finds that “tragedy and lamentation affirm what is and proceed largely in a mimetic mode” so that we are “forced to a standstill by the matter we behold” (279). On the contrary, “as works of art that include a comic element,” these three books “give us laughter’s benefits without betraying our deeper convictions” (286). Des Pres’ brilliant discussion opens up fascinating questions. If realism is all that is allowed in cinematic representations of the Holocaust, then where can we go next? Should we push on the Schindler’s List model, piling horror on horror, pity upon pity? Should we escalate the representation of violence by becoming more graphic and tragic? Aside from the fact that realistic films may give the false impression that the Holocaust can be represented, “serious” comedy (which, like Mihaileanu’s Train of Life and Life Is Beautiful, does not laugh at the Holocaust but against its deadening weight) may constitute a viable option. Provided, of course, that we take it seriously.
Maurizio Viano teaches film and cultural studies at Wellesley College. He is the author of A Certain Realism: Making Use of Passolini’s Film Theory and Practice (1993).
1. Terrence Des Pres, “Holocaust Laughter,” in his Writing into the World (New York, 1991), 279, 280.
2. Train of Life has not yet been distributed in the United States, though it played at the Boston Jewish Film Festival (BJFF) in 1998. It tells the story of a French Jewish village whose elders decide to dodge the Nazis by “deporting themselves.” They buy a train, make German uniforms for half of their men, and pretend that the entire village is being deported to Auschwitz, when, in fact, the train tries to reach Palestine.
3. Gerald Peary, “No Laughing Matter,” The Boston Phoenix, Oct. 30, 1998, Arts Section, p. 9. Legend has it that Chaplin, asked whether or not he was Jewish on occasion of the release of The Great Dictator, replied: “I don’t have that honor.”
4. After reading Peary’s review, I called the Phoenix’s film editor, Peter Keough, and asked whether he would be interested in another viewpoint. “Maybe as a letter,” he said, hesitatingly. I wrote a couple of pages, and, predictably, they were neither published nor acknowledged. One week later the BJFF presented The Train of Life at a local theater. The comparison with Life Is Beautiful was unavoidable. Josh Kun, in charge of covering the festival, wrote that Train of Life, unlike Life Is Beautiful, “isn’t so much humor about the Holocaust as it is humor imagining a way out of the Holocaust” (“The Yiddish Are Coming,” The Boston Phoenix, Nov. 6, 1998, Arts Section, p. 9). Clearly, Kun had not seen Life Is Beautiful, since Benigni’s film is exactly “humor imagining a way out of the Holocaust.” Taken aback by the blindness of an editorial hardline in a publication that parades its vaguely alternative image, I wrote a one-page letter, asking for an explanation and “begging” them to publish at least a couple of sources where interested readers would be able to find something factual about Life Is Beautiful. It was neither published nor acknowledged. Three facts are mind-boggling about these episodes. First, we have professional film critics who are so convinced of their “line” as to shun any dialogue. Second, in 1993, the Phoenix supported Schindler’s List; presumably they had accepted the idea of a spectacle on the Holocaust. When Keough, reviewing Oscar nominations in Feb. 1999, contemptuously glossed over Life Is Beautiful as the triumph of film business, any reader with enough memory was well entitled to wonder: What about Spielberg? What about all the other nominated movies? Third, Gerald Peary is a knowledgeable cinéphile with a passion for the New Wave, Godard, etc. As I suggest in the course of this article, his reasons for bashing Life Is Beautiful go beyond his Jewishness and originate in something that is rarely emphasized. My using Peary on Life Is Beautiful as the exemplary “bad review” has nothing to do with what I think of his other writings. My attack is ad positionem and not ad hominem. Besides, his review of Benigni’s film is exemplary to the point of unconscious self-parody, and I could not avoid making him into a strawman of sorts.
5. See, for example, Stanley Kaufmann, “Changing the Past,” The New Republic, Nov. 23, 1998, pp. 26–27, another mixture of poorly digested press kit and thundering anathemas. Kaufmann goes so far as to suggest that “apparently he [Benigni] couldn’t devise enough material to set the whole film in the camp, so he fills the first half of the picture with his slapstick (silhouette) adventures.” (My article will prove the structural importance of Life Is Beautiful’s slapstick half.) Richard Schickel, “Fascist Fable,” Time, Nov. 9, 1998, pp. 116–17, argues that the film “trivializes the holocaust.” He suggests that “sentimentality is a kind of fascism too, robbing us of judgment and moral acuity, and needs to be resisted.” J. Hoberman, “Nazi Business,” The Village Voice, Oct. 27, 1998, p. 98, ultimately voices a negative judgment that, given the consumer-friendly practice of quantifying ratings, translates into the little turkey icon that will from now on cling to Life Is Beautiful in the Village Voice’s “go watch this movie/don’t go” chart. However, I have no problem with Hoberman’s negative stand, since he takes the film seriously enough to turn the review into a site for useful information and stimulating opinions. When he concludes that “in its fantasy of divine grace, [Life Is Beautiful] is also nonsense,” he actually uncovers what most reviews (positive or negative) missed: the film’s spiritual dimension. That Hoberman tags religion and spirituality with the “nonsense” label is a result of his philosophical beliefs, and I respect them. Indeed, it is a tribute to Hoberman’s intelligence and professionalism that his “negative” review does a better job on Life Is Beautiful than many of the opposite sign.
6. Daniel Kotzin, “A Clown in the Camps,” Jerusalem Report, Oct. 26, 1998, pp. 44, 45.
7. Ibid., 41.
8. Pierre Bourdieu, La Distinction (Paris, 1979), 112.
9. Ibid., 319–20.
10. Thierry Jousse, Cahiers du Cinema, no. 425 (June 1998): 22.
11. Peary, “No Laughing Matter.”
12. I accessed this interview on-line; it can be downloaded from www.isg.it/pubb/2001/inter/intben.htm. This is one of the interviews that fueled my conviction, voiced in this paragraph, that Benigni has a wide range of cultural interests ranging from Buddha to Schopenhauer, from Dante to St. Francis. Considerations of space keep me from providing a history of Benigni’s cultural/cinematic career; see, e.g., G. Simonelli and G. Tramontana, Datemi un Nobel: L’opera comica di Roberto Benigni (Alessandria, 1998), and M. Martinelli, C. Nassini, and F. Wetzl, Benigni Roberto di Luigi fu Remigio (Milano, 1997).
13. See the press kit (p. 21) from Miramax Films, Sept. 18, 1998.
14. I remember reading Eco’s observation in the Italian weekly L’Espresso in the summer of 1992, but I am unable to provide an exact reference.
15. Quoted from the website www.france.com/mag/cinema/the_monster/benigni.html.
16. A. Stanley, “The Funniest Italian You Probably Never Heard Of,” New York Times Magazine, Oct. 11, 1998, p. 44.
17. Ibid., 45.
18. It is important here to note writer Vittorio Cerami’s vital collaboration with Benigni in the film script. Already a collaborator of such directors as Pasolini (e.g. Hawks and Sparrows) and Amelio (e.g. Open Doors), Cerami co-wrote Benigni’s last four films, from Il piccolo diavolo (1989) to Life Is Beautiful. Everything I say about the script must be thought of as the result of a collaboration rather than of a single auteur.
19. For example, “a dazzling exposition of the way in which love, tenderness and humor can sustain the human spirit under the most oppressive circumstances” (Kotzin, “A Clown in the Camps,” 40).
20. See Kaufmann, “Changing the Past.”
21. This image, actually, is a visual quote from Palolini’s Accattone (1961). During his ill-fated attempt to reform, Accattone—the film’s protagonist—tries working. He has to unload huge scraps of iron, all day. After a while, he collapses with fatigue and exclaims: “Where are we, in Buchenwald?”
22. Benigni, press kit (p. 19), Miramax Films.
23. Susan Zuccotti, The Italians and the Holocaust (Lincoln, Neb., 1987), 43.
25. A. Stille, Benevolence and Betrayal (New York, 1991), 17–90.
26. Zuccotti, The Italians, 39.
27. Un tempo per ridere, un tempo per piangere: in Italy, film showings include a break in the middle, the two segments of the film being called “primo tempo” and “secondo tempo.”
28. Peary, “No Laughing Matter.”
29. Kotzin, “A Clown in the Camps,” 40.
30. S. Rothchild, Voices from the Holocaust (New York, 1981), 211; Zuccotti, The Italians, pp. 26–27.