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Movie Review

The Improbable Success of 'Life Is Beautiful'

October 23, 1998|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

When the narrator of the surprising "Life Is Beautiful" says, "This is a simple story but not an easy one to tell," he's speaking of the tale he's introducing. But the thought applies as well to the challenges facing co-writer, director and star Roberto Benigni, who set himself an impossible task with "Life Is Beautiful."

Best known in this country for brief appearances in Jim Jarmusch's "Down by Law" and "Night on Earth" as well as "Son of the Pink Panther," Benigni is one of Italy's cinematic heroes, an irresistible comic force whose films regularly set national box-office records. But when he and co-writer Vincenzo Cerami came up with the idea for "Life Is Beautiful," Benigni admitted he scared himself, and no wonder. A comic fable about the Holocaust set in part in a mythical concentration camp would give anyone pause.

A sizable hit in Italy, where it won eight David di Donatellos (the Italian Oscars), "Life Is Beautiful," despite its mild title and Benigni's comic genius, has not been without its vocal detractors. Even at Cannes, where it won the runner-up Grand Jury Prize and an ecstatic Benigni literally kissed jury president Martin Scorsese's feet, the film had some furious opposition.

That mixed reaction is understandable. For while it's futile to pretend that "Life Is Beautiful" completely triumphs--it's simply too tough a concept to sustain--what is surprising about this unlikely film is that it succeeds as well as it does. Its sentiment is inescapable, but genuine poignancy and pathos are also present, and an overarching sincerity is visible too.

That guilessness comes directly from Benigni, one of the world's most irresistibly funny people. A mischief-maker percolating with infectious energy and a machine-gun verbal style, he blends an Everyman aura with the ability to infuse his characters with believable innocence.

Innocence is especially hard to come by in the dark year of 1939, but Guido (Benigni) manages. As a completely assimilated Jew his feeling is "What could happen to me?" He and a pal come to the small Tuscan city of Arezzo to try their luck, but practically the first thing that happens to Guido is having the beautiful Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni's wife and perennial co-star) fall out of a hayloft and land right on top of him.

*

That style of chaotic comedy continues, as the first half of "Life" proceeds in an old-fashioned knockabout slapstick manner with jokes that could have come out of a silent film. Typical is the episode where Guido's out-of-control car stumbles into a motorcade for Italy's king, and his frantic gestures warning everyone out of the way are mistaken for crisp royal salutes.

When not courting Dora, Guido alternates between tormenting his romantic rival, a local fascist leader, and trying to learn from his tolerant uncle (Giustino Durano) how to be a waiter at the fancy local hotel. There he becomes friendly with a cultivated German named Dr. Lessing (a gray-haired Horst Buchholz), who shares his love of difficult riddles.

A characteristic of "Life Is Beautiful" that runs through both its comic and serious parts is how carefully planned everything is. If eggs are grabbed for whatever reason, you can be sure they'll eventually be squashed on someone's head, and many of the film's elaborate jokes take 10 or 15 minutes to completely play out.

Similarly, the hints of fascist repression that dot the film's first hour, including the tormenting of Guido's uncle by local hooligans, bear fruit about halfway into the film. Almost without warning, Guido, who is by now married to Dora with a wide-eyed child named Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini) for a son, finds himself and his family on a train headed for a concentration camp. What has been a genial romantic comedy suddenly takes a very different turn.

Determined to protect his boy from the knowledge of what's going on, Guido is desperate for a way to explain the inexplicable horrors of their new life to the child. He hits on the notion of telling Giosue that everything that's happening is part of a huge game in which everyone is competing for the chance to win that most outrageous boyhood fantasy, a genuine army tank. A classic scene where Guido pretends to speak German and translates the rules for camp safety into a speech about the game's rules ("no asking for your mother") is the manic centerpiece for this deception.

*

The concentration camp, like the film, is a strange hybrid, half faithful re-creation, half fabulistic dream. While the greatest suffering Guido experiences on-camera is having to carry heavy anvils, there is also a haunting, fog-shrouded shot of a huge mountain of corpses. Just dealing, even peripherally, with this kind of powerful material lends "Life Is Beautiful" its own kind of dignity. Guido's manic good cheer in the face of the end of his world, while something of a setup job, is moving even as we're tempted to resist it.

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