LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (LA VITA E BELLA) (Italy, 1997)
Italian film, it's been repeatedly claimed, mostly by specialists, is in the doldrums these days. I disagree. Yes, big names such as Rossellini, De Sica, Fellini and such are no more. Antonioni is alive but seriously un-well. Scola is alive and well and active, but his films don't get the distribution they once had, notably in the U.S.A where he's almost an unknown now. Fiftyish Bertolucci is under-represented; Pupi Avati is not even listed in most general reference works. Movies by the still younger, most talented mavericks (Moretti, Nichetti, Salvatore, many others) are minimally screened.
Yet, if for nothing else, Italian cinema today should be world-famous for its wit and sense of the comic, the best around. A case in point is Life is Beautiful, by and with that arch-clown, the screwball comic Roberto Benigni. Mercifully, the Grand Jury Prize at the 1998 Cannes Festival. It has also received seven Academy Awards nominations, including both Best Film and Best Foreign Film - something that has not happened since 1969, with Costa-Gavras's political thriller Z.
LIB (Life is Beautiful) has two halves. The first is a tornado of fast talk, lighting-quick acts, broad gestures, and inventions as hilarious as anything I can remember.The audience is kept in stitches.
Benigni plays Guido who, in 1938 Fascist Italy, comes to Tuscan town of Arezzo (under 100,000 pop.) where he dreams of having his own bookstore. At first he flirts with pretty schoolteacher Dora (the quietly luminous Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni's wife), as he does with all the girls. But before you can say "giovinezza" this becomes love and courtship, in entirely original, hilarious ways.
Simultaneously, Guido goes through other, wonderfully comical routines as he waits on tables at the Grand Hotel where his nice uncle, the Maitre D, has hired him. Guido also impersonates people, and is not stingy with overt or implied critiques of the Fascist regime, its bureaucracy, its racism, its go-getters, its delusions of grandeur.
He then "abducts" a willing Dora on the very day of her official (and arranged) engagement to a stuffy government flunky. If you're not in stitches, have your doctor check you funny bone. Guido and Dora marry right away.
It's all slapstick fantasy, of course, as much as any Marx Brothers film. Almost nothing of what happens could happen in reality, yet the fancifulness is rooted in reality. Blithe Guido is so lavish with his unorthodox comments and, like many Italians, so full of casual references to the Virgin Mary and to saints, that you do not suspect that he is a Jew. Until, that is, his uncle's horse (sic) is painted green by Fascists, with "Jewish Horse" written on it. But even so, little is made of this.
The first half is as Italian as they make them, with typical volubility, zesr for life and sense of the absurd. It is not for nothing that this is the land of the Commedia dell' Arte and of grand, lyrical opera.
Cut to five years later. The couple have a bookstore and a little boy. The government targets Jews and Jewish businesses. The Nazis deport father and son to a concentration camp Dora (a gentile) forces her way into the deportation train. To protect the youngster, Guido fabricates an elaborate charade to make him believe that all this is just one big game.
The break in tone is jolting. From the laughter of Part One we are transported to the sadness of Part Two, which is heart-rending. In Italy, the film swept the equivalent of Oscars (7 wins) and broke all attendance records. But there were some strong objections to Benigni for "trivializing the Holocaust." "Not so," he fought back He had submitted his script to major Jewish organizations which gave it their go-ahead and later even defended the finished film. The Mayor of Jerusalem published praises.
Following Cannes, Benigni was a guest of honor at the Jerusalem Film Festival where he won the first prize for a Jewish-themed work, Between the movie's release in Italy and Cannes, he did make some cuts, said to be more a matter of length than of content, although I suspect that the slightly reduced version may be the cause of some continuity gaps and "collapsed" time.
The controversy has continued. The reception of the film by the public has been very good, by critics too, even though nay-sayers do remain who think it is in poor taste. The inescapable fact is that the uneasy mixture does come as a shock. It is a "first," a daring experiment that gambles not on comedy but on Guido's shenanigans --his lies to his son -- within a death camp. Still, Part Two, while based on the Nazis' inexplicable monstrosity, is also very much of a fantasy, a kind of landscape in the mind that does not reproduce, as in a documentary, the horror of it all. In a sense, it is somewhat like some shielded child's imagination. And its engine is not reality but the limitless love of a father for his son.
By a strange coincidence, in both this film and Central Station, its rival at the Oscars, the woman and the child are called Doris and Joshua.
At the Cannes Festival, the prize ceremony is short (around 30 minutes) and dull. But for the first time in memory it was hugely livened up by Benigni. He appeared on the stage to receive his award (the runner-up Grand Jury Prize), jumping, hollering, radiant with joy ... and pretending he had received the topmost award, the Palme d'Or . Frantically, like someone who has met his savior, he threw himself prone at the feet of Jury President Martin Scorsese who was so taken aback that he lost his ever-solemn composure. The irrepressible Benigni went on to more profuse, comical expressions of happiness and gratitude.