August 19, 2006

Life Was Not Beautiful

On May 18, in the U.K. Channel 4 showed Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, the Grand Prix winner at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival and the 1999 Oscar Award winner for the best foreign film. This gave Professor Norman Geras the opportunity to reprint in his normblog (here and here) his critical piece on the film from Imprints (5/1 Summer 2000), a British small-circulation journal.

Since I have always been a moderate fan of Roberto Benigni—though not especially with regard to his most successful film—Norm’s deep loathing of Life Is Beautiful was a surprise, and I regretted the harsh criticism in the face of a movie that inspired so many people all over the world. Yet, at the same time, I had to admit that there were (are) solid arguments for that criticism. But let’s proceed step by step. First of all, let’s remind the story:

In the first half of the movie Guido meets Dora, a well to do girl destined to marry an obtuse city politician, member of the fascist party. Desperately in love, Guido doesn't stop at anything to win her over, to the point of kidnapping her in the midst of her own engagement party. In the second half of the film we find—at the start of World War II—Guido and Dora happily married and parents of five year old Giosue’. As anti-Semitic laws are promulgated and enforced by the fascist government, Jewish born Guido and his son are deported to a lager. Thus begins Guido's tragedy and quest to isolate his son from the nazi's physical and psychological violence by convincing the little boy, who has a passion for toy tanks, that this is all a big game, with the first prize being a "real" military tank.
Italian version]

And now let’s see what Norm thinks is wrong with the film. He prefaces his own critical observations about Benigni's movie “by picking out from the tangle (…) of the more general critical reaction” some Holocaust-related themes that he does not subscribe to:

a) "the theme of representational impossibility" (“The Holocaust […] defies representation or defies artistic representation. At the very least, it defies comic treatment”);
b) "a would-be realist protest about inaccuracy of detail" (“objections complaining, for instance, that the camp in the movie looks nothing like the real site of any German Lager but like a location, rather, in Italy, as in fact it is; or insisting that children arriving at Auschwitz were generally killed at once and not taken into the camp”);
c) " 'there's no business like Shoah-business' " (“There is now just much too much stuff, or second-order stuff, or the wrong sort of stuff, on the topic of the Holocaust, a plethora of books, articles, academic conferences, college and university courses, novels, plays, television, movies, memorials, museums”);
d) "incompatibility of the Holocaust universe with any discourse of hope" (“The doyen of this kind of view in contemporary Holocaust discussion is Lawrence Langer”).
[Italics all mine]

Unlike the objections usually raised by those who subscribe to the above mentioned arguments, that of Norm is that—“not with respect to any particular detail, but overall, artistically”—Life is Beautiful “purveys an untruth” and "contains a flagrant, central disproportion, whereby the dimension of love and hope is everywhere accented, while the cruelty, horror and extreme suffering that made up the reality of the story's chosen milieu are muted, marginalized, all but pushed out of view". He explains:

One is bound to ask: if this was the kind of balance the director wanted - hope writ very large against the mere suggestion of evil - why did he not place his tale of love against a lesser background, one less severe than this axiomatic piece of criminality of the twentieth century? It could have been an episode of paternal ingenuity and courage on, say, a bus journey whose passengers are temporarily menaced by drunken louts. For this is approximately the atmosphere that Benigni constructs for us. Put together so, however, Life Is Beautiful would have failed in its central purpose, which is to convey not just hope, but a hope of great amplitude and significance. To achieve that, Benigni needed the utmost extremity, a very paradigm of evil, against which to set off, to magnify, the hope. But he wants the extremity only as abstract symbol, emptied of its horror and its capacity to unsettle and terrify us, its capacity indeed to cast us down by focusing our minds on one of the less palatable truths about the nature of humankind. I agree, therefore, with those critics who have said that the film is mendacious, and a subtle form of denial: denial not of the Holocaust itself, but of 'the depth of its horrors' (Jonathan Romney, 'Camping it up', Guardian, February 12 1999).

A bit harsh, but I must say I agree. Well, it is not that I changed my mind about the movie, as a matter of fact I still consider it to be a good film—though not an absolute masterpiece—but I think that even the mere occurrence of being perceived the way Norm perceives Life is Beautiful is a sufficient reason to recognize an objective (at least partial) failure in the central purpose of the film itself, which is to convey—as it has been said—“not just hope, but a hope of great amplitude and significance”. And this is also why I partly agree with Chris Brooke (The Virtual Stoa), who refers to Norm’s severe criticism and complains that:

Benigni had given us a much kinder, gentler Nazi camp than the historical record warranted. Artistically, that fact was fatal both for my enjoyment of the film (not that I want to watch films of Nazi atrocities, please note) and, so it seemed to me subsequently, for what I learned about the director's own artistic ambitions. And politically it seemed repulsive, because for better or for worse we live in an era where lots of people get their education about subjects as serious as the Holocaust from films like La vita é bella, and I'd certainly hate it if this film really were the source of a lot of people's Holocaust awareness.

I said “I partly agree” because I can’t help thinking that were it not for movies like Benigni’s La vita è bella and Spielberg’s Schindler List lots of people could have got (almost) no education at all about the Holocaust. But that is just a remote eventuality—at least I hope so!

[This post was first published at on May 27, 2004. The comments to the original post are worth reading.]

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