Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful and the Protection of Innocence: Fable, Fairy Tale or Just Excuses?

By Bullaro, Grace Russo | Post Script, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful and the Protection of Innocence: Fable, Fairy Tale or Just Excuses?


Bullaro, Grace Russo, Post Script


Anyone wading through the morass of reviews and critical articles about Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful is liable to walk away reeling from the wildly divergent opinions expressed by the critics. At times it is difficult to believe that they are all writing about the same film. Now that the hype has died down, and with the greater clarity of vision that the passage of time brings, it is worth reexamining the film to get a better perspective on its effectiveness in the light of the controversies that it has generated.

As many people already know, Life is Beautiful is a story that takes place in Italy in the years preceding and during World War II. Guido, the character Benigni plays, is a happy-go-lucky Jewish man who woos and weds Dora, a Gentile young woman who is about to marry a Fascist officer. These are the events of the first half of the film. In the second half the "racial laws" of 1938 have been promulgated. Guido, by now the father of a five-year old boy, is deported to a Nazi death camp along with his son and his uncle. His wife begs to be allowed to go along. While in the camp, Guido hides the young boy in the men's barracks in order to save his life, we presume. Furthermore, to protect the child's innocence Guido attempts to hide the knowledge of the true nature of the camp by pretending that they are playing an elaborate game in which the Nazi officers allot points for following "the rules." The prize for the winner is a military tank. In this manner Guido keeps the boy silent and compliant. In the closing scenes of the film the Allies liberate the camp. The "game" has ended.

Looking at the reviews and responses that appeared in its wake, and even to this day, we can easily see that there are very few critics who have succeeded in eschewing the passionate in favor of the objective. Among these few we find Kate Matthews, who, in her essay, "Serious Laughter," attempts to place Life is Beautiful in a broader and more diachronic context, showing how canonical works of literature and film such as Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Spielberg's Schindler's List have all been shaped by the technique of mixing comedy and tragedy (105-106). Matthews underlines that the mix "can be subversive, critical, and emotionally powerful: it can be used as a counterpoint and enhance the serious matters it brushes up against" (106).

However, Matthews is in a very small minority. Most of the other reviews are either passionately for or against. Among the positive reviews, one mentioned that Benigni "brilliantly explores the relationship between individual, seemingly insignificant acts of rudeness and the Holocaust" (Blake 31). Indeed, the same critic goes so far as to say that Benigni "has dared to reduce atrocity to absurdity" (31). Still, the prize for the most improbable and incomprehensible favorable comment on this film should go to Steve Wulf, who claims that Benigni "strives for historical accuracy" (108).

Still on the positive side, we should also remember that especially around the time of the Oscars in 1999 Benigni was being lionized by Hollywood, after having already won many awards and prizes in Europe and Israel. In Hollywood, where he won two Oscars (Best Actor and Best Foreign Language Film) it was almost a consensus that now he would be able to write his own ticket to success. In "Robert De Hero," an article in Entertainment Weekly, we learn that, "He's now a major international star," and that "When you win a Best Actor Oscar, you're right up there" (8). In short, the world was Mr. Benigni's cinematic oyster. It was only a question of "l'embarras du choix."

However, this rosy picture does not, by any means, tell the whole story of the critical reception of Life is Beautiful. Once you start to collect as many reviews and articles as possible, you quickly learn that the positive articles and reviews are buried under an avalanche of negative criticism, most of it remarkably passionate and consistent. …

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