Life is Beautiful
Laughing in the face of disaster has always been a particularly human trait, but is there ever a time when the catastrophe proves too great for laughter? That is the controversy surrounding popular Italian comedian Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful (La Vita è Bella), a comic fable set during the Holocaust. Director/star/co-writer Benigni's success, such as it is, rests mainly with his charming, clownish antics as Guido, who settles in a small Tuscan town, where he works as a waiter. The first half of the film chronicles Guido's courtship with Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni's wife). Politics is lightly mocked (as in a witty opening where Guido is mistaken for the Italian king), but fascism, the war, and Italy's persecution of Jews are only glancingly noted. Thus the film's second half, which finds Guido and Dora married with an adorable, wide-eyed son (Giorgio Cantarini) and in a concentration camp comes as a bit of a shock. Although the film's opening declares the story a "fable," Benigni never quite manages to achieve that tone. The camp itself is distinctly surreal, but Guido's simple ability to keep his son with him is not even remotely realistic. The poignancy and sentiment Benigni evokes is genuine, as is the ideal of human triumph over any situation (the film has been recognized with a multitude of awards), yet good intentions can't surmount the contradictions presented by the story's too-harrowing situation.