One of my favorite movies turns 20 this year: La vita e bella (Life Is Beautiful), an Academy Award-winning film that tells the story of Guido Orefice, a Jewish-Italian waiter, whose sense of humor charms the woman who will become his wife, and then protects their son from the horrors of the Holocaust.
A few weeks ago, I introduced Life Is Beautiful to my oldest son. Once you’ve seen a movie, you can never watch it the same way again, but you can get close to that initial experience by watching it alongside someone seeing it for the first time. In revisiting Life Is Beautiful, my love and appreciation for this movie has grown.
Life Is Beautiful defies categories, just like life does.
Here is a story delivered with slapstick comedy, in a style reminiscent of the silent films of the 1920s or the zany comedies of the 1930s. And yet the backdrop to the humor is the rise of fascist ideology and the “final solution” to the “Jewish problem.” The first half of the film is a cross between a comedy and a romance, but the second half delves into the drama of the Holocaust. If I worked for Netflix and had to categorize this movie, I’d throw up my hands, because it doesn’t fit neatly into “comedy,” “drama,” “romance,” or “adventure.”
Our personal stories don’t fit neatly into categories either. Imagine trying to select only one descriptor for your life. You can’t. Life is too complicated, or as this film would say, too beautiful to be reduced to a single category.
Another reason I love Life Is Beautiful is because the clown-like character at the center of the story proves to be the only sane person in a world where the sophisticated elites have gone mad. Guido may be charming and zany, but his irrepressible joy is more solid and substantial than the serious and somber ideologues who remain captive to their fascist ideology. As we enter into this bizarre world, we overhear schoolteachers discussing math lessons about how to exterminate the weak in order to save money. We watch as the “barbarians” (in the words of Guido’s uncle) take control of the country, prompting acts of violence and dehumanization toward the Jews.
In one of my favorite scenes, the schoolteachers have gathered the children to hear an official extol the virtues of Aryan supremacy when Guido (who they believe to be the Aryan representative) jumps on the desk in front of the class and proceeds to show the children the amazing nature of his (unbeknownst to them) Jewish body! He starts with the ear and continues all the way to the incredible “belly button” before the teachers realize something is amiss. On the surface, Guido appears to be a maniac in this world of serious sophistication, but deep down we understand that the world has gone crazy, and Guido is sane. The fascists have narrowed their fascination to the strength of their racial ancestry, while it is Guido who recognizes the deeper truth: that all human beings are fearfully and wonderfully made. It’s not the type of ear or nose (or belly button) that matters, but the fact that any of these things exist in the first place.
I also appreciate how Life Is Beautiful portrays the Nazi war machine. We never encounter the officials as bloodthirsty, Jew-despising animals. Instead, we see them with their children, or enjoying dinner, or exchanging riddles. This humanization of evildoers has a chilling effect. In one scene, an official who had always treated Guido with respect shows how his kindness has masked a soul-sick callousness. Dastardly deeds are carried out with nary a twinge of conscience, before their perpetrators retire to the comforts and pleasures of “ordinary life.” I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s description of Adolf Eichmann’s trial, in which she was struck by the “banality of evil.” Or Milton Mayer’s interviews with Germans during that time period, people who claimed they “did not want to think about fundamental things and never had.” It’s the ordinariness of the “bad guys” that makes this film frightening.
La Vita e Bella has its share of critics. Upon its release, right-wingers in Italy protested it, and so did left-wing critics in the United States. Some claimed the story was hopelessly unrealistic and that it downplayed the impact of the Holocaust on children. Most of the criticisms centered on whether or not it is fitting to juxtapose the cheery disposition of the main character and the horror of the Holocaust. Shouldn’t Holocaust-themed films follow in the steps of Schindler’s List, with its gritty realism and stark portrayal of violence?
In response, I say it’s a failure of imagination to condemn Life Is Beautiful for its lack of realism. A realistic portrait was never the intent of the filmmakers. And to chastise Roberto Benigni for making this kind of film in the first place also demonstrates a lack of imagination, because it assumes that the only way to encounter the evil of humanity’s past is through one type of art.
The cheerfulness and charm of Life Is Beautiful does not mitigate the horror of the Holocaust, but magnifies the effect because of what is left to the imagination. It’s been several years since I saw Schindler’s List, and I can vividly recall certain images and scenes, but Life Is Beautiful brings to mind the whole story of one man in this vortex of evil, someone deeply committed to his wife and child, ready to risk everything to keep them alive and (more important) full of joy.
Life Is Beautiful succeeds because its focus is not on the suffering of humans, but on the humans that suffer. And because it refuses to allow suffering to replace joy as the fundamental element of the main character. Benigni’s film resonates because it depicts joy as the deepest reality of the universe, and suffering as an intrusion.
If you haven’t seen La vita e bella, please do so. This work of art will enrich you as a person. Life is beautiful because there is an Artist, and underneath this world in all its beauty and tragedy is a pulsating heart of joy.