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Review: Unbelievable optimism in 'Life is Beautiful'

Web posted on:
Tuesday, November 10, 1998 12:30:43 PM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Roberto Benigni had to be the kind of kid whose parents dragged him out in the living room to sing and tap dance when the neighbors came over. Short of Shirley Temple (or Jim Carrey), I'd be hard pressed to name an actor who's so wildly eager to please, endlessly dancing around and blabbering a hundred miles a minute in a desperate attempt to impress you with his grandstanding humanism.

Evidently it works for a lot of people. Benigni's new movie, "Life is Beautiful" (which he wrote, directed, and stars in) has been wowing them around the world for several months now, and even won the top prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Notch up another one for mass hypnosis. By the time "Life is Beautiful" was over, all I wanted to do was pop the guy in the back of the head. The fact that he plays every scene as if he's a very loud mime is bad enough, but there's a patent phoniness to the proceedings that subverts the entire point of the movie.

Theatrical preview for "Life is Beautiful"
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Benigni plays Guido, an almost psychotically happy-go-lucky Italian in the late 1930s who apparently has little else to do except run around and be as adorable as humanly possible. For a few minutes I enjoyed Benigni's mugging and broad physicality, but the director is so taken with his star he can't really be bothered with much of anything else. With two exceptions, few of the characters in the movie interact with Guido to any constructive degree. They're either simple foils for his jovial pranks (for instance, he likes to steal people's hats and replace them with his own) or barometers for just how squishy-lovey wonderful he's supposed to be.

Several critics have written that the performance is reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin, but that's so obviously what Benigni's shooting for it gets embarrassing after a while. He may be adept with a pratfall, but what Benigni's missing is Chaplin's occasional flashes of anger and selfishness, the very things that make him human.

The Little Tramp may have been patient, but if you pushed him far enough, he'd suddenly lash out and kick you in the seat of the pants. Benigni, on the other hand, seems to think that his Tramp's big, fat heart is capable of neutering the most profound forms of evil. All you have to do is jump around and act goofy while wearing an endearing expression.

Starting with the better half

This is really two movies in one, and (though I wasn't especially impressed with either of them) the first is certainly the most useful. Hour one consists of Guido, who works as a waiter for his uncle, meeting and falling in love with Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni's real-life wife), a pretty local who's engaged to the Fascist town clerk.

It's emblematic of Benigni's style that the couple "meets cute" several times over. Even when Guido finally asks Dora out to dinner, she turns him down because she says she prefers to just stumble upon him every now and then.

Guido ultimately wins Dora over by riding a horse into a fancy dinner party she's attending and literally sweeping her off of her feet. It's the kind of calculated heart-warming moment that's usually found on sitcoms. I guess he couldn't afford to hire a violinist to play under her window while the neighbors look on in their pajamas.

Then the movie jumps ahead several years, to 1945. Guido and Dora are now happily married and have an adorable 5-year-old son named Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini). Once again, though, Giosue isn't actually a character. He's a readily pliant prop for Benigni's cutie-pie antics. Guido's constantly inventing games for the child to get wrapped up in, with the music and camera emphasis playing up our hero's irrepressible spirit.

I think the best way to put it is that Benigni isn't a comic so much as he's a big-hearted clown, the kind that your great aunt used to have paintings of in that creepy hallway. Benigni the screenwriter is perfectly content as long as there's a situation that calls for an elaborate display of Guido's unsinkability. And he comes up with a real doozy in the form of a Nazi concentration camp.

Segue to fishy happenings

That would be the second movie. This is where things get incredibly fishy, and, no matter how much the lady behind me sniffled, I simply wasn't buying it.

After Guido and Giosue are loaded onto box cars to be shipped off to the camp, Dora selflessly volunteers to climb on, too. So now the whole gang has been transported to hell on Earth, and Guido decides to more or less trick his son into withstanding the coming ordeal. In an even remotely honest movie this little gambit would fail miserably, but Guido (how could we forget) is an irrepressible, life-affirming, heart-warming sunburst of humanity. Everything he does works.

A few critics have been suggesting that the mechanics of the Holocaust are nothing to be making jokes about, and I agree. That's not what's going on here, though. Benigni is not in any way making light of those events, but he creates such a glossy, back-lot version of a concentration camp, he's cheating us before he even begins dealing with the horror.

The absurdities just keep on coming. To begin with, Guido has to hide Giosue in the barracks with the men, since children are immediately shuffled off to their own corner of the prison when they arrive. This is accomplished by having him quickly duck down on one of the top bunks whenever a guard enters the room. Apparently Sgt. Schulz wasn't the only German soldier who saw nothing.

This is silly enough, but the barracks -- which would undoubtedly have been covered with filth, human waste, and, more than occasionally, a dead body -- looks like an uncomfortable place to sleep, but not much more than that.

It's emphasized early on that the story is a "fable," but if that's the reason for the soft sell on the realities of concentration camp life, then there's no actual point to the film.

There's one funny scene where Guido is asked to translate what a German guard is shouting at the prisoners, but he makes up a story about the whole camp being a game where the person who complains the least will accumulate points and win a tank. Giosue buys into this with an enthusiasm that, once again, would be extremely unlikely given the situation.

A nasty version of Epcot

OK, it might have worked for about 20 minutes, but it seems to me that all you'd need to do is see one rotting corpse sprawled out in front of you -- or watch one innocent person take a bullet in the back of the head -- and the "game" is quickly over. Especially if you're five years old.

Sweet little Giosue never sees rotting corpses, though. It's more like he's trapped in a nasty version of Epcot. There's very little actual killing in the film, and -- in one shot that's supposed to make up for the overriding simplicity of Benigni's vision -- Guido stumbles upon a huge pile of bodies when nobody else is around.

The Nazis may have been horribly precise about what they were doing, but they were not killing thousands of people a day without the other inmates being wholly devastated by their knowledge of the process. And they sure didn't stack the evidence up in a corner where little kids couldn't find it.

That mound of bodies, by the way, comes as a huge shock to Guido, who's been too caught up in comically goose-stepping around his son to confront anything so severe. The character barely perceives anything until it's staring him right in the face.

So, I think it fails miserably. The lesson that Benigni ultimately imparts is that it's easy to convince a child horror doesn't exist as long as it stays out of the way while the two of you are goofing off.

If only it were that easy. You can argue that the story is not supposed to be realistic and is dealing solely with the strength of the human spirit. If that's the case, then Benigni should have set it in a place where the human spirit isn't in such peril of being victimized by a bullet. It hasn't stopped one yet.

"Life is Beautiful" is just as thematically complex as its title. Like I said, a lot of this is supposed to be set in a concentration camp, but most people could handle the way Benigni presents it while eating a burrito. There are implications of violence, no nudity, and no profanity that I can recall. Rated PG-13. 114 minutes. In Italian and German with English subtitles.

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