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Weekly Alibi Life is Beautiful

By Devin D. O'Leary

NOVEMBER 9, 1998:  Roberto Benigni is the biggest box office star in Italy. His comic films consistently break records (Johnny Stecchino, The Monster). But here in America, his efforts have failed to catch fire (Return of the Pink Panther, Night on Earth). Humor, of course, is not an easy thing to translate--and Americans like to pretend that their sense of humor is the most sophisticated. Films like the recent smash There's Something About Mary prove otherwise, of course. Perhaps Americans are embarrassed to admit that physical humor is funny. Mix in the right amount of sex, and it becomes "adult"--leave it pure, and it's "juvenile." Brit comedian Rowan Atkinson's Bean, for example, topped the box office in nearly every country on Earth. In America, it made barely a ripple. Benigni's humor, like Atkinson's, relies on easily translatable physical slapstick. Americans, however, seem to have outgrown the pure artform the day that Charlie Chaplin (a Brit even) retired.

With his newest film, however, Benigni seems to have locked onto a no-lose combination of humor and pathos. Life is Beautiful left the attendees of this year's Cannes film fest with jaws agape. Why? Because it is, ostensibly, a comedy about life in a Nazi prison camp. That isn't a comic subject most folks would dare to touch. We're not talking about a foolish POW camp a la "Hogan's Heroes" either. We're talking a real deal Jewish death camp. Touchy subject, no? Drawing on reserves few could have guessed he even possessed, though, Benigni has crafted a wonderful, funny and life-affirming little gem.

Life begins as a comic romance as Guido (Benigni), an energetic country boy freshly moved to the big city, woos a beautiful school teacher named Dora (Benigni's real life wife Nicoletta Braschi) in pre-war Italy. There are hints of the impending conflict (fascism is discussed, well dressed soldiers wander the streets), but for the most part, the first half of the film is a gentle romance. Benigni's character is an imaginative rake--to call him a liar is a bit harsh, but he does spend most of his time spinning fanciful tales. Upon first meeting his lady love, Guido claims to be a prince who will soon be re-seeding the land on which she lives with wall-to-wall camels. At one point, he shows up at the school where Dora teaches posing as a government inspector and delivers a wonderful lampooning of Nazi eugenics to her students ("Obviously we are the master race. Look at this ear. Have you ever seen a more beautiful ear?").

Eventually, the two hook up, and the film's second half takes a dramatic turn. Things skip ahead a few years. Guido and Dora are married and have a young son, Giosué. The war now is in full swing. Being a Jew, Guido is a frequent target of harassment. Eventually, the family is rounded up and sent off to a prison camp. Unable to tell his young son the truth about their incarceration, Guido falls back on an imaginative lie. He tells Giosué that they are being sent to a special summer camp. If they obey all the rules, they can gather points. The first person in camp to amass 1,000 points wins a real-life tank! While Guido labors during the day, his son engages in such "games" as hiding from the stormtroopers who are gathering up children for the gas chambers. Here, the film is straddling a precarious line, but it plows ahead like a seasoned tightrope walker without so much as a stumble.

Numerous comedians have tried to walk that fine line between comedy and pathos. Few have ever succeeded like this. Jerry Lewis, the ultimate crying on the inside kind of clown, even tried his hand at making a prison camp comedy. The Day the Clown Cried featured Lewis as a circus clown trying to cheer up children in a WWII prison camp. It was, like most of Lewis' more indulgent work, syrupy and filled with bathos (for you nontheater majors, that's the bad kind of pathos). The film was never even released to theaters, perhaps due to studio skittishness. Most recently, Billy Crystal has injected his films (Father's Day, My Giant) with a cloying dose of schmaltz. I suppose there's an impulse in every comedian to be dramatic, but it usually comes out as maudlin sentiment. Chaplin got the mixture right in films like City Lights and The Kid. In Life is Beautiful, Benigni applies his pathos with an eyedropper and comes up with a precise mixture of hopeful humor and touching emotion.

Life does perfect double duty as a heartwarmer and a heartbreaker. Watching Guido shield his son from the harsh reality of their life with a fanciful lie is a wonder to behold. Benigni doesn't try too hard to reveal the horrors of death camp life. (In the wake of Schindler's List, I think we've got a pretty clear picture of what it was like.) At the same time, though, he does not shy away from occasionally confronting viewers with a proper knowledge of how dangerous this situation is. When all the other children in camp disappear, Guido informs Giosué that they are now playing the hiding game. Any child who is spotted will lose points. Benigni never makes fun of the situation. He's aware of the gravity of his setting. But what he's fashioned it into is a wonderful, imaginative tale about the triumph of the human spirit and the idea that life is indeed beautiful, no matter what obstacles we face.

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