Life is Beautiful -
rated - Hot! Hot! Hot!
Roberto Benigni, the writer, director and star of Life is Beautiful is
the consummate clown. His work in this film owes much to our comic
heritage. You'll see echoes of Chaplin, Keaton, Langdon in Benigni's
performance. Some of the schtick is straight out of vaudeville - you
can imagine the Marx brothers doing some of Benigni's bits of business.
And in fact there's a lot of Harpo Marx's sweetness in Benigni.
Benigni is so proficient at comedy and clowning that you can imagine
that an ordinary comedy wouldn't be enough of a challenge for his
extraordinary talents. It's tempting to think that, like Hitchcock, he
needs to put obstacles in his way to make it more difficult for him to
succeed, to keep himself interested.
So what's the hardest subject to be funny about? The Holocaust? How
about a comedy set in a concentration camp? Would that be hard enough?
Yes and no. As with any taboo subject it is possible to extract laughs
from it. The trick is to do it without cruelty to the victims. The
Farrelly Brothers went for the cheap and easy laughs recently in
There's Something about Mary - hitting a mentally subnormal person in
the eye with a baseball and then laughing at the black eye, for
instance. Doing it sensitively is more difficult.
There've been comedies about Fascist regimes before - Chaplin did it in
The Great Dictator and Lubitch did it with To Be or Not To Be. In Life
is Beautiful, Benigni walks a fine line, and I think he walks it
brilliantly. Others have criticised the film for trying to make light
of a terrible tragedy, or for not being realistic enough about the
concentration camp. This is a death camp, they say. You can't make
jokes about such a subject - and why doesn't anyone sicken and die?
What film were these people watching? There are several scenes where
people just go off and never return. In one extremely moving scene,
women sort through a pile of clothes to find evidence of whether their
loved one is alive or dead. Benigni understands that you don't need to
show bodies to show death. And if a clown does this, is it any less
Benigni's main focus is on the love of a father for his wife and son,
and if the concentration camp is a bit stylised, and not as horrific as
it might have been, well, that doesn't bother me, or lessen the emotion
I feel for what is happening to these people and the way they cope with
it. This movie is funny and sad and beautifully judged. I laughed out
loud, I cried a lot. I loved it.