Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sh!#ting on the Classics: Life is Beautiful

I find this film insensitive, stupid, and unfunny. Does this make me a Nazi?

Like Black Swan – the subject of this controversial be-shitting – Life is Beautiful really divides audiences. Some people see it as a transformative work of art, one of the best films ever made, and a testament to the hope that resides in the heart of the human spirit.

And then there are people with brains in their heads.

THE STORY IN BRIEF: The film is the story of Guido Orefice, a Jewish bookkeeper who falls in love and marries a beautiful, rich Italian wife. They have a child together. Years later, the Nazis ship Guido and his son to a concentration camp. To protect his son from the horrors there and to keep the boy’s spirits up, Guido weaves an elaborate fantasy that it is all some kind of game. He convinces his son that if they follow the rules of this complicated game (hiding, not crying, not eating) they will win a tank.

I am convinced that in 1997, filmgoers worldwide fell victim to some sort of mass hypnosis. This film won the Grand Jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It was nominated for seven Oscars, and WON THREE. One would think that triple-threat Roberto Benigni had written a poignant, trenchant film about the Holocaust, directed it with alacrity, and performed the lead role with wit and subtlety. Actually, Benigni pioneered the use of mind-altering gasses released through theatre ventilation systems that caused audiences to hallucinate a “masterpiece.” And that’s bad.

All kidding aside, what Benigni actually did was mastermind a mawkish, numb-skulled film that trivializes the Holocaust. And that’s worse.

If the film weaves a spell on audiences – giving them the story of uplift and beauty that most of us are secretly hoping for in any Holocaust film – could it just be Nicola Piovani's Oscar-winning score working its magic on us?

David Edelstein of Slate.com, for one, did not fall victim to this spell. He wrote, “…Benigni's movie made me want to throw up. He has cast himself as a prankish Jew who… gets carted off by the Nazis to a death camp. The conceit is that Benigni tries to keep the 5-year-old from realizing what's going on by pretending that the whole thing is a game… It half-works right up to the point where people start getting gassed, and then Benigni's moist-eyed heroism and tenacious faith in his own irresistibility start to seem like a monstrous ego trip – a clown's megalomania.”

TANGENT:  Some people’s reaction to this film reminds me of teaching Franz Kafka’s classic novella The Metamorphosis to high-school seniors. Kafka’s book is one of the bleakest ever written: the story of Gregor Samsa, who awakens one morning to discover he has transformed into a large insect. His family is unsympathetic, he faces numerous hardships, and then he dries up and dies. Year after year, teenagers would argue that this was a life-affirming tale, illustrating how the rest of us, lucky to not have been transformed into vermin, should not take THE SIMPLE THINGS IN LIFE FOR GRANTED. Boy, my students desperately needed happy endings. They were willing to jump over logic, common sense, and the book itself to get one. That is just crazy talk.

Speaking of crazy talk, writer/director/performer Benigni does a lot of it in Life is Beautiful. He spouts nonsense a mile a minute. He is like the obnoxious drunk guy at the party who will just not shut up. I know this guy. Most of the time, this guy is me. And that’s bad.

Audiences were smug about enjoying a foreign film with subtitles. They were even smugerer for having to read so many goddamn subtitles. Benigni clearly thinks that this loudmouth character, spewing his nonsense a mile a minute, is charming and funny. In my much shorter version of the film, the Nazis patiently listen to Guido’s first random, asinine outburst and then calmly shoot him in the head. They hang his lifeless, skinny corpse in the courtyard as an example to the other prisoners. His son cries.

Fin. No one wins the tank.

Benigni made a big splash on these shores, appearing on numerous talk shows and essentially playing his character in the movie: a lovable (?) over-effusive loudmouth.  Somehow this charmed the American people, and the climax of “Benignimania!” was his Best Actor Oscar win, wherein he walked on the armrests of the theater seats (and other nominees’ heads) to reach the stage and shouted nonsense for the better part of three minutes instead of giving a traditional acceptance speech. He said that he wanted to “take Jupiter down and kidnap everybody… into the firmament, making love to everybody.” He ended his largely incoherent outburst by hastily adding, “I hope to win some other Oscars.” 

Who were the losers Benigni beat out? Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, Sir Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters, Nick Nolte in Affliction, and Edward Norton in American History X. And yes, that’s bad.

FULL DISCLOSURE:  I can actually take Benigni in small doses. His segment in the otherwise forgettable Night on Earth is very funny. He plays a cabdriver who, upon picking up a priest as a fare, forces the Father to listen to his outlandish confession. Perhaps my amused reaction to this sequence has more to do with my strict Catholic upbringing than its relative merits.

I cannot speak to whether the film is an insult to victims of the Nazi Holocaust. I feel that their memory would be better served by a better film, one that does not use its historical setting as a cheap backdrop for an uneasy mix of low-grade buffoonery and sentimental melodrama.

I do not find this film funny or uplifting. Obnoxious, cloying, and manipulative, sure – but never funny or uplifting. Back when this film was first reviewed, surely someone must have pointed out the lead character’s obviously appropriate name. Get it? See, Beningi’s character is Guido Orefice – well named because, throughout the film, he has a big mouth! And he acts like an asshole.


  1. movie's trying to portray that even during the worst time ever, the main character makes an effort to make sure his son doesn't turn towards the dark side of life. One of the big enemies in the world is this sort of apathy which is the opposite of what this movie is trying to reflect.
    Clearly you do not agree. But the rest of us aren't wrong. It didn't win 3 Oscars for nothing. Maybe you're missing an angle.

  2. oh my gosh... had no idea this column was here. Someone on the internet with a brain!!! i hated this movie and was ridiculed as heartless and cruel for not drinking the koolaid. You have a fan. Can't wait to see what else you have writtne.