Film Reviews 2017 - #12 Life is Beautiful

Life is Beautiful (1997)


Winner of three Oscars, ‘Life is Beautiful’ makes a very unusual demand of the viewer: it asks you to laugh through the Holocaust.

The opening half of the film gives some clues to this demand, but not many.  Yes, you know when and where the film is set and, yes, you see some troops here and there and, yes, you learn that the film’s hero is Jewish.  But it’s so funny!  It’s like watching a Laurel & Hardy movie - a woman falls from a barn, a car careens through a crowd, identities are mistaken, there is relentless slapstick and wackiness.

And our hero falls in love! With a girl who is about to marry a rich businessman that she doesn’t love! And he wins her over whilst riding a horse painted bright green!

Everything is fantastical, our hero is impossibly smart and funny and brave and as the darkness gathers he wins the girl and they have a son and when the son is still only four or five years old one day the mother comes home and the man and the boy have gone.

And we are on the train, and she joins them, and we are in a concentration camp and whilst the father, our hero, continues his mad antics – partly because it is how he is, partly because it is how he chooses to try to save his son – we find it harder and harder to laugh.  The sense of dread, present but tentative through the first half of the film, becomes crushing, almost overwhelming.  Our hero cracks jokes and has a trademark silly walk – but he’s just been tattooed and the women are sorting through the clothes left behind after the ‘showers’ and the number of people in the dormitory goes down and down.  How are we supposed to laugh?


There is a long history of using humour to cope with the unbearable.  The ancient Greek dramatists, the Roman poets, Shakespeare, they all did it.  The example I know best is Spike Milligan’s sequence of war memoirs, beginning with ‘Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall’. War is, clearly, not funny.  In Milligan’s work, people are blown up and shot.  Generals make stupid decisions and ordinary people die.  Milligan himself is blown up and experiences severe shock.  Hitler is perpetrating mass murder.  Nothing remotely humorous about any of it.

But Milligan’s work is undeniably hysterical.

I don’t feel equipped to address the question of ‘how’ it is funny; or, rather, how Milligan manages to make it funny.  He was a comic genius and his perspective on the world was unique. There are, it’s true, various theories as to how comedy works, and there are theories too about its role in human (and indeed animal) psychology, and there’s stuff about its cultural and artistic significance, and so on.

But the question that bothers me here is why it is funny - or, more precisely, why we might need it to be funny.

And it seems to me that we do something genuinely paradoxical by using humour to speak of war and death and murder and concentration camps.  On the one hand, the humour pushes the material away: it is too awful, too unbearable, and we need to distance ourselves from it.  Comedy pushes it away, creates the distance, by transforming it into something we can treat as disposable, light, of little consequence, a trifle, nothing more than ‘a joke’.

At the same time, humour brings it close – it provides the means by which can actually look at the unbearable.  How otherwise can we look?  There’s a clue in the word: ‘unbearable’.  These are things that happened, things that human beings did, things that we did, but we cannot bear to look.  But we must look, in both senses: we are somehow compelled to look; and it is important that we look. How else will we learn?  Comedy – humour – helps us to do this and, in so doing, provides an essential human service.

And thus, a paradox: humour as the means of pushing it away, reducing it in size, making it trivial, so that it floats away; humour as a means of bringing it close, making it accessible, so that we can see it.

This is not at all easy.  Indeed, I suspect the attempt is itself somewhat paradoxical: some individuals are compelled to try, drawn ineluctably to make the effort; and those same individuals find making the effort unbearably hard.   As Milligan himself put it in his foreword to ‘Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall’: “After Puckoon I swore I’d never write another book.  This is it."


This, then, may be what is happening with Roberto Benigni, the writer, director and Oscar-winning star of ‘Life is Beautiful’.  Given his multiple engagements with the film, it is clearly a deeply personal project; and internet research swiftly confirms that his father did indeed spend three years in a concentration camp during the Second World War.  On this account, ‘Life is Beautiful’ is a powerful example of an age-old and difficult technique, that of using humour to help us (and, of course, to help him) distance ourselves from the horror (by way of protection) and, at the same time, to bring the horror into view (so that we can see, and learn and, if we are lucky, come to terms with it).

And on that score alone, ‘Life is Beautiful’ is wonderful and extraordinary and important.

But I think there’s something else going on, something that takes ‘Life is Beautiful’ to another level and may warrant use of the word ‘genius’ to describe it.

I found myself thinking more and more about the first half of the film, when our hero is engaged mainly in madcap antics and meeting and winning the girl.  It is easy, initially, to see the breakpoint as being the moment at which the family is taken to the concentration camp: before; and after.  But I wonder if, in fact, the breakpoint is the arrival of the son: before, and after.

And suddenly we might conjecture that the stories presented in this film from the period in the concentration camp are based on the direct memories of the little boy.  He was four or five years old, and he can (just about) remember some of the events and some of what his father did and he can extend and extrapolate these a few years later to tell his own son.  (Benigni was born in 1952.)

The boy will also have heard his father telling tales about the times before he was born.  Do we not all recall the special quality of those stories we heard from our parents about the times before we were born?  When your mother told you about her own childhood?  When your father told you about that crazy trip he took when he was 19?  These stories have a very particular power.  The little boy remembers the stories his father told him of the time before the concentration camp – when he, the little boy, did not exist – and his father told him of the time when he met his mother and the story is not merely glossed and enhanced in the telling by the father, but is remembered and mis-remembered and enhanced by the little boy once he reaches adult life.

And this is what we are watching in the first half of ‘Life is Beautiful’.  Not the story of a young man’s adventures in Italy at the beginning of the Second World War, but a story told by an adult of the recollections of a child, recollections of the stories he was told by and about his father.  So of course our hero is impossibly funny and clever and madcap and amazing – is that not how we all, as children, formulate such tales?

So ‘Life is Beautiful’ is not just a story that uses humour in that paradoxical way to help us meet the reality of the horror of the Holocaust; it adds another dimension entirely – the paradoxical power of childhood.  The perspective of childhood, its guilelessness, making things mysterious (distant) and, at the same time, obvious (close up).  ‘Life is Beautiful’ is child-like in its orientation, in its telling and, indeed, in its humour.  As a result, it has two devices working simultaneously to enable us, perhaps more than any other film I have seen, truly to see the horror.

And that, I think, is genius.


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