Roberto Benigni (left) and Giorgio Cantarini (right) in Benigni’s Life is Beautiful. Photo by Sergio Strizzi. Courtesy of Miramax Films.
In an early scene of Life is Beautiful, Guido (Benigni), an assimilated Jew, poses as a Fascist official in order to steal a moment with the woman he loves, and finds himself in the awkward position of having to expostulate on racial superiority to a room full of schoolchildren. This scene underscores Guido’s special (inadvertently satirical) take on the world in 1934: Anything for love. Politics? A preposterous distraction. Flash forward five years. Guido, his wife, and child, are deported to a concentration camp where Guido tries to protect his son from the terror of what surrounds them by pretending they’re involved in an elaborate game of scoring points by hiding from the guards, not asking for snacks, not crying for Mama—by staying alive. Here, the comedy of the first half is turned on its head. Guido’s hilarity is forced, desperate, as he assuages his son’s fears: “I’ve heard of wood-burning stoves, but never people-burning stoves! No more wood? We’ll use this lawyer.” This stunning comic-tragic satire about Italy’s part in the Jewish Holocaust works by pitting the absurdly disproportionate horrors of the war against a sentimental love story. In this unexpectedly effective film, writer/director/actor Benigni (best known in the US for Down by Law) charts the degradation of a life and of laughter—the impossibility of comedy once the world has become itself ludicrous. Benigni cites Primo Levi as an inspiration: the description in If This is a Man of morning reveille at the camp, prisoners standing naked and motionless, Levi thinking to himself, “What if all this were nothing but a joke? This cannot be true—.”