Living Out Loud
American History X
Exhibit A is the film's structure, which is itself designed to provoke a conflicted response. Benigni divides the film into two parts, each with a radically different tone: the first half, set in 1939, is a perfectly charming light romantic comedy, heavy on Chaplinesque bumbling and verbal pyrotechnics; the second, set in 1944-45, is considerably grimmer -- hardly surprising, given that the majority of it takes place in an unnamed concentration camp. In other words, what seems at first to be a sweet-natured, lighthearted trifle turns out to have far more serious ramifications. As in: hint hint. Granted, few people will have an opportunity to see Life Is Beautiful completely cold -- I certainly didn't -- and the knowledge that the camp material is forthcoming can't help but inform responses to the wacky shenanigans taking place beforehand, blunting the intended force of the division. (Similarly, a few critics have complained that the first half of the film constitutes too lengthy and too bland a prologue to the more gripping events to come...but I suspect that they might have felt somewhat differently had they not known about, and hence likely been a bit impatient for, what lay ahead.) Nor is the demarcation absolute, by any means. The threat of fascism is omnipresent in the sunny Tuscan scenes -- although it's a comparatively mild threat, like the Mr. Potter of the first half of It's a Wonderful Life: stuffy, blowhard authoritarianism ripe for ridicule. Grumpy Mr. Potter is ultimately revealed to be anything but ineffectual, however; and like Capra's classic (note the similar titles -- both are at least in part ironic), Life Is Beautiful is darker and more despairing than it appears. The sudden, jarring shift in tone is tantamount to a directive: Ignore the cover, read the damn book.
In any case, Benigni devotes fully half of his film to a delightful storyline in which an irrepressible waiter-in-training and aspiring bookseller named Guido (Benigni himself, natch) ardently pursues a lovely schoolteacher by the name of Dora (Nicoletta Braschi). There's not much to say about this section of the movie, which is lovely and hilarious and fairly forgettable except insofar as it lays the thematic groundwork for what follows. Those who've seen Benigni's performances in his previous films, or in Jarmusch's Down by Law and Night on Earth, will know what to expect; those who haven't should be prepared for an exuberant force of nature -- an energetic amalgam of silent-era physical dexterity and motormouthed Hawksian braggadocio. (Benigni would've been right at home jabbering alongside Grant and Russell in His Girl Friday.) A few of the gags here feel a bit stale -- I could have lived without the old eggs-in-the-hat routine, for instance -- but they're overshadowed by Benigni's inventive mile-a-minute monologues and by some terrific set-up/punchline stuff; there's a magical seduction scene in which Guido startles Dora by seemingly bending the world to his will, making keys fall from the sky and strangers appear out of nowhere to exchange dry hats for wet ones. It's the kind of graceful, perfectly timed comedy that Hollywood no longers even bothers to attempt. It's also, in its evocation of a man determined to interpret events as he chooses, another clue as to what the film is truly about.
After an exquisite, lyrical transition that should forever banish the words "[NUMERAL] [TIME UNIT] LATER" from movie screens, we're introduced to Guido and Dora's adorable wide-eyed moppet, Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini), just in time for father and son to be unceremoniously rounded up and transported to the camp. And it's here, in a setting traditionally treated onscreen with the utmost reverence, that Benigni sets in motion a simple but brilliant conceit that speaks more to the absurd horror of the Holocaust than any number of "devastating," "nightmarish," realistic depictions: in order to protect Giosue, Guido convinces him that the trip to the camp is his birthday present, and that everybody there, prisoners and guards alike, is competing in a contest for which first prize is an honest-to-goodness tank. (The kid's toy tank is his most prized possession.) One must amass 1000 points, explains Guido, in order to win; said points are allotted for strategic manuevers (e.g., successfully hiding from the players who wear uniforms and yell nonsense) and/or deducted for strategic errors (e.g., crying; wanting to see Mommy; asking for a snack). Remarks about human crematoria are casually dismissed as psychological gamesmanship on the part of aggressive players ("you fell for that?"). When Giosue inadvertently stumbles upon Guido performing manual labor, Guido informs him that he's helping to construct the tank that he and Giosue are currently the front-runners to win. They can leave, Guido assures Giosue, at any time...but why would they want to do that, when they're so far in the lead?
It's at this point, not surprisingly, that certain viewers find themselves becoming offended, or at least troubled. Numerous criticisms of the film's second half have been voiced, all of them equally misguided: that it's disrespectful to the memory of those who died in the camps; that Benigni delivers a shamefully cheery, sanitized depiction of the Holocaust; that the conceit of the game is in poor taste. Even those without a particular ideological bone to pick often complain that the film is sentimental or maudlin or somehow inappropriately "feel-good." I can only shrug, dumbfounded. At no time did the second half of Life Is Beautiful make me feel anything even remotely approaching "good." Indeed, in certain respects I found Benigni's film more chilling than either Schindler's List or the lesser-known but even more authentic The Last Stage (the latter actually shot in Auschwitz just a year or two after the war ended, with numerous former inmates essentially playing themselves). Because Guido is constantly clowning around, and because he's being played by one of the world's foremost comic actors, an alarming number of people mistakenly assume that his antics are intended to be funny; I can't count the number of times that I've seen this film incorrectly labelled a "Holocaust comedy." In truth, I did laugh on occasion -- especially during a scene in which Guido "translates" a German guard's instructions, interpreting every remark and gesture as an explication of one of the game's rules -- but it was a hollow, choking kind of laughter, totally devoid of merriment. More often, I simply sat in my seat, aghast at the sight of a man stubbornly refusing to accept the nightmare in which he'd suddenly found himself.
For a while, I wondered whether I might have invented this subtext, especially since, to my consternation, nobody else seemed to have noticed it. Heck, maybe Benigni really had intended to make a heartwarming, life-affirming weepie, and had only inadvertently stumbled onto something more intriguing and powerful. In fact, it didn't much matter; I hail from the critical school o' thought that asserts that an artist's intentions are more or less irrelevant, and so my opinion of the film would remain unchanged even if Benigni were to drive to my Brooklyn apartment to explain in person that the subject of denial had never so much as momentarily flitted across his mind. A second viewing, however, made it abundantly clear that it had; in fact, the entire first half of the movie, which had seemed merely a pleasant diversion designed to engender sympathy for the characters, now took on such intense thematic significance that I found myself reacting to Guido's various machinations with horror rather than hilarity. In particular, a scene that I'd barely even noticed the first time around, in which a pal of Guido's quotes Schopenhauer on the subject of "the will to truth," suddenly became the movie's thematic keystone. Schopenhauer, of course, famously believed that human beings construct their own versions of "reality" in their heads; from the moment that he first hears about this theory, Guido begins to imagine that he can control events via sheer force of will, along with a goofy Catskills-magician hand gesture in which he slowly wiggles his fingers while moving both hands in gentle horizontal waves before his face. Significantly, this gesture turns up again late in the film's second half, at a moment when Giosue is threatened with discovery. In fact, okay, yes, perfect example: here we have a movie that is allegedly a story of sacrifice -- even the closing voiceover asserts this -- and yet Guido, given the opportunity to save his son by calling attention to himself, chooses not to do so. Instead, he puts his hands out and goes wiggle wiggle wiggle. When this strategy "works," are we to assume that Guido in fact has some kind of supernatural ability to influence others? Or are we instead to assume, as I do, that little Giosue is one lucky sonofabitch, and that his continued existence on the planet is no thanks to dear deluded Dad?
Some may find this interpretation untenable, because the movie never explicitly condemns Guido's actions -- he's treated like a hero from beginning to end. I'm not at all certain, however, that condemnation is what Benigni has in mind. Rather, what he seems to be getting at is the notion of the Holocaust as an event so fundamentally ridiculous that it only makes sense as a nonsense game -- one like Bill Watterson's "Calvinball," say, in which the rules are constantly changing at the whim of whoever's in power -- and so utterly horrific that it could only be endured by those who opted to pretend that it simply wasn't happening. This, to my way of thinking, is a far more potent and fascinating approach to the subject than the traditional, glumly reverential one; there's no question that Schindler's List is more effective as cinema (as a director, Benigni is at best functional), and ultimately I think it's the better film, but Life Is Beautiful has made me think about the Holocaust in a way that Spielberg's somber, respectful drama never did. Schindler's List, for instance, features a brief scene in which various inmates discuss the rumors of lethal showers and conclude that they must be false; while the exchange is effective, and I imagine historically accurate, I don't find it half as gripping as a similar moment in Life Is Beautiful: Giosue confronts Guido with rumors of people being cooked in ovens, and Guido scoffs at the very idea. "Hey, the fire's getting low," he imagines someone saying, by way of demonstrating to the boy how silly it all is. "Throw on that lawyer." At both of the screenings I attended, the audience laughed at this line. Here's my rhetorical question: is that, in fact, a joke?
One of Benigni's most inspired choices -- a choice that has in turn inspired a great deal of misguided vitriol and disdain -- was to scrupulously avoid any semblance of violence. Life in this nameless camp seems at worst mildly unpleasant, not unlike the minor hardships suffered by Steve McQueen & Co. in The Great Escape; some of Guido and Giosue's fellow "players" (including, early on, Guido's uncle) mysteriously disappear, and there are brief allusions to the showers, but that, until the final minutes, is about it. In another context, this might have seemed a unconscionable omission or distortion; given this film's remarkable conceit, however, it makes perfect sense: Guido can't very well pretend that it's all a game if he's routinely seeing people being brutally slaughtered. Still, those who went into the film expecting a more realistic depiction of the camps, and what went on within them, have been mightily nonplussed. Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman, for example, in a very mixed review, complains that "we don't see any brutality, either...and so the film, stylizing reality to an insane degree, treats us like children, too." In fact, precisely the opposite is true: depicting the true horror of the camps would be treating us like children. To do so would not only undermine the entire point of the movie but implicitly insult the audience, crediting us with either an impossible degree of ignorance or zero imagination. We aren't idiots, after all -- we know perfectly well that millions of people were casually murdered in the camps, and that those who survived suffered unspeakable degradations. It's precisely the juxtaposition between what Benigni shows us and what we know is going on outside of the frame -- between what is happening and what Guido pretends is happening -- that makes Life Is Beautiful so subtly disturbing. What's more, by withholding the expected ghastliness, Benigni gradually encourages us to lower our Holocaust-movie guard, so that, near the end, when he does choose to show us the aftermath of atrocity, the sight of anonymous corpses packs more than the usual wallop. Those who dislike Life Is Beautiful often dismiss this image as "obligatory," but it can't possibly be accidental that the film begins with an obscure flash-forward to the fog-enshrouded walk that Guido and son take en route to this grisly sight...nor that it's immediately after seeing the bodies that Guido rouses himself to something not unlike action. (Admittedly, the fact that the war has ended plays an important role as well.)
Which brings us, finally, to the movie's finale, which even the film's strongest supporters tend to denounce as facile and schmaltzy. (If you don't want to know how it ends, bolt now.) To be honest, that was my own reaction immediately after seeing it -- I believe that I phrased my dissatisfaction as "Ugh," though it may well have been some variation on "Blech" or "Yeesh" -- and to a certain extent I still consider it a poor choice on Benigni's part (or possibly Miramax's -- the American cut is reportedly about eight minutes shorter than the Italian one, and the Weinsteins are notorious for their, uh, "creative input" in this regard). It's also, at first glance, the strongest evidence that my own interpretation of the film has little or nothing to do with what Benigni intended -- the final moments seem carefully designed to push the Triumph-of-the-Human-Spirit button nestled within our ribcages. Again, however, a second viewing made me reconsider. Yes, the denouement, with its jaunty march-style variation on the main musical theme and its triumphant final freeze-frame, looks for all the world like your typical soppy praise-be conclusion...but consider for just a moment what's actually happening onscreen. Mother and child, reunited at last, hug ecstatically. Neither one of them has the slightest clue that Dad is lying dead in an alleyway miles behind them. Giosue, in fact, believes that he's just won the contest, and that the American tank that liberated the camp is his prize. "We won!" he shouts repeatedly, thrusting both arms skyward in a victorious salute. "Yes, we won," she replies, smiling happily. Freeze. Roll credits. Cue hankies.
Does this strike nobody else as rather hideously ironic? Need I point out for the record that while Dora and Giosue may have "won" their freedom, they have also lost a husband and a father, respectively, and that neither one yet knows it? The film ends there, as indeed it should...but my mind raced onward, wondering just how Giosue's tender little psyche was going to react to the news that Pop won't be coming home anytime soon, and that, well, you know that whole birthday contest thing? maybe you should sit down for a moment, Gio... The first time, the strained joy of this reunion struck me as a huge miscalculation; the second time, I found it impossible to imagine that I was supposed to feel uplifted by the sight of two jubilant people who had no idea that their world was about to crumble around them. That the film ends with a deluded cry of victory suggests that my ambivalence, however unique, isn't entirely inappropriate. Still, this scene is so aggressively inspirational that I can't in good conscience maintain the akimbo position I struck back in paragraph one. I may well be wrong. I may have enjoyed an entirely different Life Is Beautiful than the one that everybody else saw. 1998 has been such a lousy year for movies overall that it wouldn't surprise me a bit to discover that I've resorted to inventing first-class pictures in my head. That I'm seeing what I want to see, neither more nor less. I believe it was Schopenhauer, was it not, who remarked that...hey, wait a minute...
Oh yeah: why the minus trailing the 'A'? Two words: Nicoletta Braschi. Can we pass a worldwide law forbidding talented actors and directors from casting their dull spouses in key roles? Thanks heaps.