Life is Beautiful – 5 stars

Roberto Begnini’s Academy Ward-winning gentle fable is in two parts.  First, the love-at-first-sight courtship of a sweet and funny man and a beautiful schoolteacher, followed by a tale of a father’s love for his wife and son – and the lengths to which he will go to spare them the cruelty of a Nazi concentration camp.  Both halves of the film meld seemlessly, and the picture travels a road from sunny to tense to dire, with Begnini at the heart, lending dignity as he dances faster and faster.

Begnini’s film is neither historically accurate or particularly reality-based.  Indeed, the half of the film occurring in the concentration camp could have taken place over a period of months, weeks or days, and Begnini’s character essentially creates a daily circus to shield his boy from the horrors that surround them, behavior not even Colonel Kilnk would have allowed.  For this reason, Life is Beautiful came in for criticism from some quarters who believe that a Holocaust movie should not necessarily be the backdrop for a comedy, however bittersweet, and/or that Begnini trivializes and historically mutated the reality of Italian Jews during World War II.

To these critics, I say: nuts.  The overarching theme of the film is a father’s attempt to protect his son from death, both physical and spiritual, and it is effectively conveyed in a respectful manner.  To rebut that conveyance with complaints of inaccuracy or improper tone is misplaced and rigid, as if there is some politically correct blueprint or guideline for a film depicting in any manner the Holocaust.  Conservative film reviewer John  Podhoretz recently followed this line, attacking the latest X-Men movie – which traces Magneto’s powers and philosophy to his treatment at the hads of the Nazis – thusly: “Genocide and supernatural powers don’t mix”.  Nuts to him too.

Shoah has been made.  So too Schindler’s List, The Wansee Conference and NBC’s Escape from Sobibor, with the inimitable Rutger Hauer and Marilu Henner. Go see them, I implore you, and make your own judgments (and while you are at it, check out Enemies, A Love Story, which actually mines a Holocaust survivor’s post-trauma love triangle for a couple of chuckles).  But do not stilt artistic vision in the name of grim devotion to past horror.  Not for nothing these criticisms smack of paternalistic preaching that might make the Catholic Standard proud.  Tarantino and Stone “glorify” and thus perpetuate.  Lolita makes child molestation all the more probable.  And Begnini’s work, according to Slate‘s David Edelstein, follows this path: “Imagine Harpo Marx giving the hot foot to a pompous official, who takes out a machine gun and blows him away: That’s how cheap Benigni’s hash of farce and tragedy is.  It’s a gas, all right.”

Edelstein earned his “I’m A Sensitive Keeper of the Grim Tenor of Concentration Camp Flicks” ribbon.  And with that award goes a free ticket to Showtime’s offering, The Devil’s Arithmetic – Kirsten Dunst is transported from modern day history class, where she passes notes and ignores the teacher’s recitation of the the extermination, to a WWII-era Poland.   Or The Twilight Zone, where Vic Morrow’s modern day bigot was carted off in a train headed, presumably, to Treblinka.

I’m convinced the most vociferous critics of Begnigni’s film just couldn’t resist the obvious and scathing reference to Hogan’s Heroes.(see Edelstein’s “It’s a gas”)Sometimes, a cutting line will serve an entire argument if it is good enough.

Controversy aside, the film begins in brilliant color but mutes to near-black and white as the story continues its necessarily sorrowful pace.  I can say little about the direction which is generally a kudo.  My eye was trained on Begnini.  His performance as an unserious man at the most serious of times mirrors Chaplin (another person we could criticize – how dare he benefit from physical comedy while aping the creator of the concentration camp, Adolf Hitler). His carefree and whimsy is tested as he becomes separated from a rich life, his wife is torn from him, and every day becomes a struggle to personally survive and protect his son.  Everyone else is quite good and the son is particularly affecting (the Italians get me every time – see Cinema Paradiso).

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