The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.1 (2001) 253-266
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The Secret Histories of Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful
"This is a simple story. But it's not easy to tell. Like a fable, there is sorrow, there is wonder and happiness." So begins Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, a comic's meditation on the tragedy of the Holocaust. Set in fascist Italy, the movie recounts the story of the Italian Jew Guido Orefice, who is deported to a Nazi concentration camp together with his son Joshua and his Christian wife Dora. Guido is an endearingly hapless buffoon whose world is shaped by a combination of happenstance, both felicitous and unfortunate, and by his belief in love's abilities to sustain and transform. Both of these things mark his life in the camp, where he dedicates himself to shielding his son from all knowledge of the ghastly surrounding reality by telling him that they and the other prisoners are really competitors in an elaborate game. Although Guido is ultimately killed in the Lager, he saves the spirit as well as the life of his son, who, following the fiction his father has created, exalts that he has won the game when he is reunited with his mother at the end of the film.
Already known to international audiences for his manic performance in Jim Jarmusch's 1986 Down By Law, Benigni gambled in making his trademark bumbler the vehicle of a Holocaust narrative. Although a sardonic and dark humor is present in some camp memoirs, such as Tadeusz Borowski's This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, Benigni's use of the comedic genre has sparked a new round of debate about the parameters and possibilities of Holocaust representation. Benigni also risked a more specific censure in his native country. Comedy has proved to be an acceptable way of publicly addressing the sensitive subject of Italy's participation and defeat in World War II, but the unmartial anti-heroes of Italian post-war military spoofs neatly avoid the issue of fascist aggression. Benigni's film only partially perpetuates this disavowal of homespun violence. It blackboxes the Holocaust as a wholly German phenomenon, but reminds Italians of their complicity in creating a persecutory climate through their enforcement of fascism's racial laws. Benigni and his co-screenwriter Vincenzo Cerami thus hedged their bets by doing extensive research, by hiring historical consultants from Milan's Center for Jewish [End Page 253] Documentation, and by screening the film for Italian Jewish groups before its release. Such care paid off: while the movie drew some criticism abroad for its optimistic and sentimental tone, within Italy the critical and audience response was mostly positive. Benigni's subsequent international success--which included prizes at Cannes, Jerusalem, Warsaw, and Hollywood--cemented his popularity among Italians as an ambassador of the "essential" national qualities of fantasia and humanism. Indeed, overseas publicity for Life is Beautiful emphasized its inventiveness rather than its historical accuracy. In America, the movie was billed as an Italian fable "that proves that love, family, and imagination conquers all," and Benigni told the magazine Indie that he made the movie less as an historian than as "a director . . . whose duty is to invent stories, so I invented this completely. It is a fable but invented from the truth." 1
The theme of the slippage between reality and fiction lies at the core of Life is Beautiful and finds articulation in both the film's content and in its narrative structure. "I am what I want to be" is Guido's motto, but dreams of transformation also obsessed the Nazis and fascists; ultimately, Benigni's film calls attention to the potential of fantasy to work both evil and good. The destructive consequences of totalitarian utopian thinking are ubiquitous. Dreams of empire and racial superiority drive the Italian fascists, who throw parties with colonial themes and reassure one another that they are Aryans and "the best of all races." But the director also finds a positive function...