Life is beautiful: reception, allegory, and holocaust laughter *.
In a 1987 essay entitled "Holocaust Laughter," Terrence Des Pres notes that "one of the surprising characteristics of the film Shoah is how often Claude Lanzmann and some of his witnesses take up a sardonic tone, a kind of mocking irony that on occasion comes close to laughter" (279). Observing that Lanzmann "seems deliberate about it," Des Pres concludes that "if Shoah is a sign of the times, we may suppose that artistic representation of the Holocaust is changing--that it is trying a more flexible mode of response" (280). Ten years later two films would prove his uncanny intuition right: Roberto Benigni's La vita e bella (1998) and Radu Mihaileanu's Train of Life (1998). (1) Whereas the latter has not thus far raised much controversy, La vita e bella has been the focus of unbridled media attention, enormous popular success (crowned by mainstream film culture's most eloquent recognition, three Academy Awards), and critical venom.
This essay aims to prove that La vita e bella is an important film, for, judging from the way it was received by several critics, it might unfortunately be overlooked by scholars. My essay wishes to be, in other words, a warning sign of sorts: it aspires to warn film scholars that they ought to take Benigni's film seriously, as a text whose value exceeds the contingent polemics it has stirred. In the first section, I shall discuss the film's reception, with a special focus on the reviews in the U.S. at the time of the film's release. In the second, I shall map out a textual analysis through eyes searching for "the pleasure of the text." And in the third, I will visualize a constellation of cinematic and literary works whose comedic portrayal of the Holocaust constitutes a little known canon of which La vita e bella is but the most recent example.
The film has become a sort of metal detector whose alarm bell signals ideas, defects, goodness, hypocrisy or wickedness in people's DNA. (E. Gruber)
The Award for the Best Jewish Experience, obtained by Benigni's daring project at the Jerusalem International Film Festival, is truly "a blasphemy," for "the Holocaust misrepresentations of Life Is Beautiful" are "unforgivably obscene"; but "there are further horrors beyond the movie: a-historic film critics who slaver over it, fuzzy-thinking crowds who embrace it," and favorable Jewish reviewers "who definitely should know better." Thus ends Gerald Peary's review in the Boston Phoenix, leaving those who "don't have the honor of being Jewish" with no choice but to feel intimidated. (2) That moral intimidation in Peary's strategy is clear from his review's opening move: "Peary? My family name was Pisarevsky, changed at Ellis Island by American officials. My parents are Russian-born Jews. What you see below is, I suppose, an angry Jewish column." Peary's anger, however, is less cognitive than rhetorical, a justification for dismissing the film and its author while feeling good about it. Peary even calls Benigni, whose father spent two years in a Nazi labor camp, a "revisionist." (3)
Peary's is but the extreme case in a series of negative reviews that appeared in several major publications (e.g., The Village Voice, Time, and The New Republic) upon the film's release in the U.S. (4) Their dismissal of La vita e bella often adopts Peary's strategy: moral indignation. Only J. Hoberman, in The Village Voice, attempts an actual reading of the film, his anger being a cognitive tool that produces textual knowledge rather than moral outcry. Consistent with his premises, Hoberman drags Spielberg along with Benigni into the mud, for "it was Schindler's List that made mass extermination safe for mass consumption."
The existence of a very large number of non-angry Jewish reviewers belies the assumption that being Jewish should automatically lead to hating La vita e bella. Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, was approached by leaders of the Italian-Jewish community concerned by and divided on La vita e bella. Before viewing it, Foxman quipped that a comic film set in Auschwitz "cannot be done, [it] is trivializing" (Kotzin 44). He changed his mind afterwards: "The film is so poignant, it is so sensitive, it is so informed by creative genius, that the answer is--I give it a wholehearted endorsement" (Kotzin 45). Likewise, in the Jerusalem Report, Daniel Kotzin argues: "Throughout, Benigni is walking the thinnest of lines taking the risk in almost every camp scene of lapsing into the offensive, of cheapening his subject. It would take only one false note, one poorly judged wisecrack, to destroy the delicate fabric. Yet extraordinarily--the more so, given Benigni's madcap movie-star persona--there are no slips, the poignant balance is maintained" (41).
Lest we too believe with Peary that Jews favorable to the film "should know better," attitudes towards La vita e bella depend less on whether you are Jewish or Gentile than on other factors. In some cases, it is plain political animosity in moral garb, as with Giuliano Ferrara's vicious campaign from the pulpit of the right-wing newspaper Il Foglio. Ferrara, on Silvio Berlusconi's payroll, is merely settling the score with Benigni who, at the time of Berlusconi's brief leadership of the Italian government, openly voiced his contempt for the Italian media tycoon.
In most cases, however, the appreciation of La vita e bella is made difficult, if not impossible, by the presence of an obstacle that often goes undetected. An examination of the critical judgments on La vita e bella, conventionally framed within a low, middle, and highbrow hierarchy, reveals that within the limits inherent to all generalizations, the higher the reviewer's position, the more negative is the review. A case in point is what happened in Boston and New York. The two major newspapers, The Boston Globe and The New York Times wrote on the film in enthusiastic terms. The weekly "cultural" magazines aiming at more sophisticated readers, The Boston Phoenix and The Village Voice, panned the film. Likewise most of the film specialists that I have interviewed either shrugged their shoulders or expressed contempt. Students, on the contrary, were enthusiastic, and so were several academics from disciplines other than Film Studies (including Jewish Studies). We are faced then with an obstacle that leaves popular or non-specialized audiences and those who negotiate film ratings for them unaffected, an obstacle to which middle and high brow film "authorities" are more vulnerable. This situation is not surprising, for "the obstacle" belongs to the slippery terrain that the French sociologist Bourdieu ascribes to habitus as "the incorporated form of one's class position and the conditionings imposed by it" (112): taste. Taking La vita e bella seriously goes against high cultural taste.
Taste--Bourdieu never tires of repeating--is economic and cultural capital made real. Academic film scholars and high-brow critics (people like Peary and I) usually belong to "the fractions (relatively) richest in cultural capital and (relatively) poorest in economic capital" (112). Artistic consumption is for us one of the most "distinctive" socio-cultural practices. It yields distinction in the form of symbolic profit/status, and distinguishes us from those who do not know better. By displaying refined tastes in the arts, we constantly (re)define and (re)position ourselves. Bourdieu writes:
What is at stake is indeed "personality," i.e., the quality of the person which is affirmed in the capacity to appropriate an object of quality. The objects endowed with the greatest distinctive power are those which most clearly attest the quality of their appropriation, that is the quality of those who appropriate them, because their appropriation demands time and skills that, insofar as they require a long investment of time--like musical or pictorial culture--cannot be acquired in haste or by proxy, and which therefore appear as the surest indications of the intrinsic qualities of the person. (319-20)
We tend therefore to valorize those films whose consumption indicates that we do not fall for the baits of the entertainment industry (sentimentalism, media-hype, easy-to-understand plots, immediate pleasures). To complicate things further, we do not appreciate being reminded of all this, as if recognizing the social function of our cultural habits diminished their value. Our tastes, choices and reactions must appear as the result of freedom, talent, and intelligence rather than socio-cultural logic, apprenticeship, and privilege.
Benigni's physical, comic style has little potential for yielding distinction. In Italy, his films have a mass following, but are commonly shunned by "serious" critics. Indeed, dignified aloofness typifies high culture's reception of Benigni's films. For example, the intellectually sophisticated, Italian film journal Duel did not offer a substantive reading of La vita e bella (which they had done for Titanic). Likewise, in France, the prestigious Cahiers du Cinema refused to give La vita e bella even the negative recognition of an attack, as testified by Thierry Jousse's report from Cannes: "a totally disproportioned Jury's special Grand prize for Roberto Benigni's La vita e bella, which deserves neither its detractors' angered, grand moral declarations nor the excessive praise of its supporters, who unhesitatingly compare it to Chaplin (!) [sic]" (22). Not surprisingly, Peary situates himself "in the minority who find Benigni a bothersome amalgam of agitated tics and feeble jokes." Had La vita e bella not touched a raw nerve in the Judeo-Christian body, it would have been met with the same fate as his previous films: silence. (5)
Benigni is aware of this situation, which is after all the product of the choice he made when he developed a "popular" comic style (comicita popolare). Drawing a distinction between humor and "the comic," he likens them, respectively, to eroticism and pornography, and jokingly declares himself a pornographer, too physical and unsophisticated to please refined spirits (Benigni, www1). (6) Much as he may seem at peace with the populism of his comedies, Benigni has now and then manifested his resentment for the way in which his films are rigidly typecast as "low." His interviews are filled with high cultural references (for example, Schopenhauer) that often surface in his films. (7) In fact, his respect for and increasing appropriation of a traditional cultural capital (for example, his recent public readings of selected cantos from Dante's Inferno in both Italy and New York) betray his anxiety over a seemingly impossible promotion of his comedies to a higher status.
Benigni's desire for a higher status is less a symptom of ambition than of a genuine wish that his ideas on comedy and laughter be taken seriously. Convinced that "laughter can save us," Benigni resents comedy's ancillary role (Miramax press kit 21). His latest films aim to bestow legitimacy on comedy by reframing topical issues through the subversive lens of laughter. With Johnny Stecchino (1991), for example, he confronted one of Italy's worst scourges, the Mafia. According to some critics, in fact, Benigni's satire of a Mafioso's masculinity was an effective deterrent against the fascination that the gangster image exerts on young men, even more effective than the countless realistic films on the subject. In Il Mostro (The Monster, 1994), his depiction of a petty thief mistaken as a serial rapist was in many ways a regression to his earlier style of predominantly sexual jokes. On that occasion, however, Benigni spoke of "the big challenge of transforming a dramatic subject into a comedy" (Benigni www2).
La vita e bella constitutes Benigni's attempt to maximize this challenge and prove his comedies' potential once and for all. "I had this strong desire to put myself, my comic persona, in an extreme situation"; and "the ultimate extreme situation is the extermination camp, almost the symbol of our century, the negative one, the worst thing imaginable" (Stanley 44). The Holocaust then is not an end but a means--"I did not want to make a film about the Holocaust" (Stanley 45). That is, the means to prove that (his type of) comedy can respectfully treat the Holocaust and suggest an outlook that tragedy is unequipped to convey. It should be noted here that Benigni's project, far from cheapening it, confirms the Holocaust as history's worst nightmare and re-inscribes it in the collective memory through an unusual code.
Although a means to an extraneous end, the Holocaust was not cynically exploited by Benigni as a sure attention-getter. The proof that La vita e bella is not a cynical market move lies in the historical and cultural awareness that sustains the script. (8) Take the title, for example. The film's working title was Buongiorno Principessa! a tribute to the phrase which first introduces Guido's (the protagonist played by Roberto Benigni) mythopoietic power to the audience. During post-production, Benigni came across the statement "life is beautiful" in Trotsky's letters, written in the seclusion of his Mexican bunker when the Jewish communist leader already knew that his days were numbered. Trotsky's words immediately resonated with the spirit that animates La vita e bella, and became the definitive title. As such, it operates on multiple levels. In everyday language, the expression " Dai! La vita e bella!" (Come on! Life is beautiful!) is often employed to cheer someone up; it asks us to look at the causes of our despair from a broader perspective. "Life is beautiful" functions on a cinematic level as well, for it links Benigni's film with Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life and the optimism for which the Italian American director is (in)famous. Moreover, unlike Buongiorno Principessa!, the new title has no apparent diegetic justification; it puzzles viewers and forces them to ask questions. Benigni was certainly aware that while nobody would recognize the reference to Trotsky, his title Life Is Beautiful would expose it to further critical venom. "Can you imagine anyone who actually survived the camps saying that?" predictably asks Peary. Had Benigni wished to soften the prejudice and suspicion that a film marketed as "a holocaust comedy" understandably aroused, he would have kept the original title. Evidently, "artistic" motivations had priority over marketing diplomacy. By calling, as it were, Trotsky on the witness stand, the new title offers the example of someone who celebrated the beauty of life under oppressive circumstances, someone who, like Guido in the film, was Jewish but did not make Jewish-ness the basis of his personal identity.
Benigni's efforts are likely to go unnoticed since, superficially, La vita e bella has all the qualities that most film specialists despise. Their habitual distaste for Benigni's slapstick is exacerbated by the film's popular success and by the feel-good, Capraesque humanism that oozes from nearly all favorable reviews. (Kotzin, for instance, calls it "a dazzling exposition of the way in which love, tenderness, and humor can sustain the human spirit under the most oppressive circumstances" ). Add the sentimentalism inherent the story of a father with his innocent child in a death camp: from Bicycle Thief to Cinema Paradiso, Italian films have often won the favor of their audiences through the sentimental powerhouse of children in trouble. It is an emotional terrorism that works for "them," the popular audience, but not for "us." And if the obstacles of physical comedy, sentimentalism, and media hype were not enough, La vita e bella is also not bello. Benigni is not the type of director that will astonish you with sweeping camera movements, against-the-beat editing, non-narrative detours. His films are not for those who value style over content, difficulty over simplicity.
It is my contention that Benigni's unsuitability to high brow taste prevented, prevents and will prevent most high brow critics and film scholars from taking La vita e bella seriously. Which is too bad. If they did, they would discover what I myself was able to discover in the wake of a fortuitous event that confirms the legitimacy of my hypothesis--I know all about the intellectual bias against Benigni's vis comica because I had it myself.
When the manager of the Key Sunday Cinema Club invited me to Washington to be the guest speaker at a preview screening of La vita e bella, I hesitated. Much as I respected Benigni's long standing militancy as political satirist, I was no fan of his movies. Luckily, however, I accepted and set out to do my homework: articles, interviews, and multiple viewings of the videotape. My first impression was skeptical and had it not been for my responsibilities, I would not have watched it again. But I did, and as every film scholar knows, it is the second viewing that tells "the truth" about a film. Released from the duty of following the plot and from the pressure of laughing at gags unsuited to my taste, I began appreciating La vita e bella's quotes, internal rhymes and intertextual links. An allegorical structure of sorts was emerging. Far from cheapening the Holocaust, the film prodded me to know more.
The war against the Jews was in many ways a war against the imagination (and at bottom the Jewish conception of God): to suppress the workings of that imagination--to deny the sufferings of the Jews any sort of symbolic representation--would make that a war that Hitler won. (Leslie Epstein)
A few people I know joked on how they went to see the much talked about, touching film about a child in the Holocaust, and after a half hour they felt puzzled: "Did I enter the wrong theatre?" they all asked themselves. With the exception of two premonitions (immediately defused by Guido's optimistic and childishly naive nature) the first hour of La vita e bella is pure farce and fairy tale romance, with no hint of the impending tragedy. Inevitably, detractors hissed that the first half betrays the authors' real interests--making people laugh--and proves their facile approach to Jewish reality in 1939 (Kauffmann 27). Undoubtedly, the optimistic Guido is not a realistic portrait of the average Italian Jew in 1939. But even more unrealistic is his son Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini) hiding out in his father's barrack, or the cryptic image of prisoners carrying anvils all day every day. (9) Everything in this fairy tale is unrealistic, or better, has no verisimilitude. To many, of course, the Holocaust allows for no artistic license: its depiction must obey the rules of tragic realism, the only mode/mood commonly deemed appropriate for fictions on a reality that vastly surpassed fiction. But "according to what I read, saw and felt in the victims' accounts," Benigni remarks, "I realized that nothing in a film could even come close to the reality of what happened. You can't show unimaginable horror--you can only ever show less than what it was. So I did not want audiences to look for realism in my movie" (Miramax press kit 19).
In fact, La vita e bella intentionally conceals Guido's Jewish-ness for about forty-five minutes and rids the film's first half of tragedy. Benigni's choice emphasizes an uncontested historical reality: the "Italian-ness" of the Jews, their participation in Italian history at all levels. The storehouse that Guido's uncle Eliseo (Giustino Durano) lends to Guido and his friend Ferruccio has a bed on which Garibaldi, the symbol of the Italian unification process, allegedly slept. Eliseo also mentions an original manuscript of one of Petrarch's biographies. We remember that Francesco Petrarca is the name of the school where a fascist official is expected to explain the Race Manifesto and where Guido (Benigni) offers to the entire student body and teaching staff a funny and intelligent satire of racism's arbitrariness.
Until the late 1930s, Italian Jews lived, loved, and laughed like anyone else in Italy. This remark does not intend to repropose the convenient stereotype of "the good Italians even when fascist." Puncturing this idyllic image is necessary, but so is it also to recognize that there is some truth to the stereotype. Anti-Semitism did not enter official Fascist ideology until race laws went into effect in 1938. Mussolini himself had a Jewish mistress, Margherita Sarfatti, until 1936. As Susan Zuccotti reports, in what has been called the definitive study of the Holocaust in Italy, "the vast majority of assimilated and non-political Italian Jews reacted to the racial laws with shock and disbelief" (43). Although all Italian Jews were affected, the situation was far from being homogeneous. As testified by the tragic fate of the Ovazza family, there even was the case of Fascist Jews who blamed the race laws on Zionism and non-patriotic Jews, and went on deluding themselves until it was too late (Stille 17-90). Many Jews downplayed discrimination, regarding it as a symptom of Mussolini's opportunistic desire to win Hitler's favor and create the possibility of forfeiture of assets as well as bribes and corruption Italian style. "On July 13, 1939, the government introduced an Aryanization program, by which a special commission could simply declare arbitrarily that a Jew was not a Jew" (Zuccotti 39). In this deadly farce, Guido's oblivious optimism in 1939 constitutes an absurd response to an absurd reality.
The intentional creation of an optimist Jew who averts his eyes from the signs of impending tragedy is more than a reflection on the advantages of dis-identity. It serves architectural reasons. By refusing to make Guido and his uncle Eliseo icons of a foretold disaster, the film lets comedy reign supreme throughout the first half. Cleverly, something similar, but of opposite sign, happens in the film's second half. Shortly after the prisoners arrive at the camp, the film's funniest scene occurs: Guido "translates" for his son's benefit the camp rules as they are shouted by one of those who are playing the mean guys. It is the beginning of the "game." It is also the exhaustion of the film's vis comica, and we practically stop laughing. Benigni's gags are virtually non-existent, and viewers' facial muscles are too busy containing emotions and tears to afford the liberating luxury of sincere laughter. The lack of jokes is, of course, a sign of Benigni's respectful restraint. But as happened with the first half, letting go of comedy's prime objective serves architectural reasons. It purifies, as it were, the second half so that tears replace laughter, fear replaces optimism. La vita e bella has a remarkable architecture because it creates a filmic space that is virtually symmetrical.
It is, however, a weird symmetry. Far from producing the sense of balance and comforting harmony traditionally associated with it, symmetry here disorients viewers by forcing them to experience the anxiety of an unexpected schizophrenic attack. La vita e bella splices together two halves that do not belong together because they are, in fact, recalcitrant opposites, one the negation of the other: slapstick comedy and tragedy. The legitimacy of the film's aspirations to be treated seriously starts here, in the deliberate and uncommon short-circuiting of two modes of representation that may tolerate and even profit by mixing, but cannot be merely juxtaposed without seeing their identities and effects unpredictably altered. La vita e bella is not a tragicomic film, but it is first comic and then tragic. The tragicomic is a healthy, if occasionally disturbing, mix that aims as a rule either at making comedy serious by bestowing gravity on its lightness, or at defusing the depression provoked by tragedy. The latter is uncanny and unsettling, potentially sickening and always disorienting, insofar as spectators are forced into a schizoid experience. In a sense La vita e bella successfully helps its viewers to imagine what many Italian Jews must have felt: the eruption of absurdity and the transformation of one reality into its opposite. In this way Benigni's film is faithful to reality: it dramatizes its deepest implications. To put it differently, La vita e bella is faithful to reality in spirit and not in the letter, the same way that depth psychology claims faithfulness to the ultimate reality of a person.
The film's architecture, its global structure, is too deliberately dual not to become significant in and of itself. Try to visualize these two halves, disposed one after the other, and opposing one another as white and black would. I am proposing to look at the film's formal arrangement as a spatio-temporal allegory. Spatially, the two opposites are kept separate and yet over-determine one another, a bit like the yin-yang symbol, where the black and the white are well defined and symmetrically juxtaposed, but each contains a speck of the other as a memento of their interdependence. Temporally, as Benigni himself reminds us through a humorous pun that works only in Italian, we are reminded of the devastating wisdom of the Old Testament's most mysteriously modern book, the Qohelet: "A time to laugh, a time to cry." La vita e bella's deliberately strident, dual structure is then allegorical, a trait perhaps to be expected because of Benigni's recent interest in Dante. As The Divine Comedy's structure of 3 times 33 cantos was itself an indication of the mysterious reality of the Trinity, so La vita e bella's architectural schizophrenia suggests the irreconcilable duality in human history. It also points, as we shall see, to Taoist wisdom as the only possible way to accept and live such duality while transcending it in thought.
Seen in the light of the film's architectural allegory, both ending and beginning deserve attention. The ending seems to re-propose schizophrenia by first violating then upholding the rules of comedy. Predictably, detractors concentrated only on the happy half, on the "many, many from his camp (too many) who survived" and who "seem immediately happy" (Peary 9). True, there is a sunny feeling about the last few minutes of the film, but it cannot be seen in isolation from the fact that Guido, the protagonist of what is perceived as a comedy, dies. Benigni reminds us that he has created a film persona out of his string of comedies. He is a bit like Donald Duck, and his death in La vita e bella is as jolting to most of his followers as the death of Donald Duck would be: "I am really Benigni in the film, and children identify with me. They ask their parents: 'Why did they kill Benigni?' The parents can only answer by saying that he is Jewish. So, the children ask, 'What does it mean to be Jewish?'" (Kotzin 40).
The film's beginning is retrospectively so revealing that viewers should be forced to see it again after the end. The credits flash on the images in an unusually slow and unpredictable manner, and cover three sequences. In the first, we get a shot of Guido in a camp uniform, walking with his son asleep in his arms. Fog makes vision difficult and a voice-over reminds us that the film we are about to see is a fairy tale (and therefore demands the suspension of the rules of realism). As if to make sure that we do not miss the prescription of fabulous semiotic lenses, the words fairy tale are uttered twice in the space of one short sentence. Also, Italian viewers are immediately aware that the voice-over is not Benigni's. Whose is it then? Only by the film's very end, in the scene of the "many, many, too many" survivors in the sun, do we find out that the voice-over is Giosue's, Guido's son, who then retrospectively becomes the narrator of the film. La vita e bella is the grateful recollection of a son who commemorates his father's sacrifice in a spirit that would have pleased him.
Giosue's voice-over begins and ends the film, imparting a circular shape to it. But the first shot's pivotal function extends beyond the voice-over. It is also a flash forward, for, some twenty minutes before the end, we return to the same shot. Walking with Giosue in his arms, Guido mutters to himself: "What if this were nothing but a dream?" And no sooner does he stop mumbling than we get a POV-shot of a heap of corpses: what looked like fog is in fact smoke from incinerated bodies. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a more effective way of making the first sequence resonate with the rest of the film.
The second sequence contains a ritual invocation to the creative muses and another prescriptive gesture, barely disguised in the sudden eruption of freewheeling slapstick. The scene per se is unfunny, a predictable brake failure in a car speeding downhill. In the allegorical scheme, it draws a tempting analogy between the zigzagging vehicle containing the author and the film itself. Significantly the invoked deities are Chaos and Bacchus; and one can hardly think of better choices, since the ideas of a refusal to follow a predictable structure, the eruption of disorder, and the willful straying of Rimbaud's "drunken boat" (to name just a few) are all evoked. The image of a brakeless car that cuts through the fields downhill, however silly, is then at once the material support to a slapstick routine (it has in other words a diegetic role) and an apt allegorization of the text as an intoxicated/intoxicating fairy tale that will stray not only from the rules of realism but also from those of fairy tales. It is also the film's attempt to convince skeptical minds that La vita e bella's slapstick is sustained by a textual awareness modeled after classic texts.
The third sequence shows Guido's accidental encounter with his princess-to-be, Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), and offers the first example of what is the true common thread uniting the two halves of the film. It is the one thing capable of running through both "the comic" and "the tragic," that is, the game (il gioco). The game does not start in the camp; it starts with the courtship of Dora, hence the film's working title Buongiorno Principessa). The game is the ability to transform each event into another story, the possibility that what happens in the unfolding narrative called reality may have another meaning in the make-believe text spun by Guido's imagination.
The game opened by Buongiorno Principessa! consists in the art of living life as if it were an allegory to which our imagination can provide the key. Each occurrence can be lived in its humdrum, material significance, or it can also be seen as the indication of another text. When Guido calls out "Maria!" and the key drops from the window, he is successfully superimposing his own mythical story onto normal, everyday events. By saying "Buongiorno, principessa," he spellbinds Dora into believing that she too is part of a fairy tale. The phrase "Buongiorno, principessa" is the invitation to enter a mythical world in which our life overflows with secret connections and possibilities within our reach, provided we awaken to them. The game, then, has a name: spirituality. Spirituality of any kind is going to demand a similar move from us; namely, that we stop thinking that our life has only one dimension/reading. You can reject the game/spirituality, and roast and boast in the material world. Or you can conceive the possibility that everything that happens here and now, in history, can be wrenched away from a narrative that is increasingly devoid of sense and can be grafted onto another story, another realm. Of all the reviews I read (both negative and positive), only J. Hoberman's took pain to unearth La vita e bella's spiritual dimension. Of course, Hoberman's leftist ideology regards the film's "fantasy of divine grace" as "nonsense," for it amounts to lying to children and spectators alike, re-proposing a latter-day version of the opium of the people. Indeed, our take on the game depends on our willingness to take seriously the sudden eruption of spiritual needs, the return of the sacred, that characterizes the end of the millennium. Where do we stand? Is it a lie or a light? And the question of La vita e bella's alleged revisionism should be thus reformulated: Is it morally legitimate, when representing the Holocaust, to suggest that spirituality provided a key, if not the key, to unlock the camps' doors?
The game played by Guido is also intimately related to the fairy tale that the film purports to be. The game consists in the ability of living one's life as if it were also a fable, a mythical world populated by gods and monsters. Thus, the Holocaust was, yes, the result of Nazi terror and Judeo-Christian history; but it was also the possession of some humans by the very demons they had unleashed. It is not a matter of choosing one reading instead of the other--both explain what happened. That is what life as an allegory means. That is why La vita e bella's fairy tale can lift us from the Holocaust, not because the Holocaust has been cheapened but because our spirit has been enlarged. Thus as a fairy tale visualizing a fabulous light behind the darkest shadow in human history, La vita e bella is itself an enactment of the game. Benigni's film is the dream that comedic imagination triggers in our minds once we reconsider Guido's question before the heap of corpses--"What if this were nothing but a dream?"--in the light of the film's spiritual allegory. It is, in other words, time to confront the air of Eastern philosophies that transpires from La vita e bella. I do not know whether Benigni has joined the ranks of the many Buddhist-Christians populating the Western hemisphere these days, but to better understand this film, the game, and the fairy tale, we must now blow up a detail in the film and make a rather lengthy philosophical detour.
Early in the film, Guido hears from his friend Ferruccio (Sergio Bustric) a pop version of Schopenhauer's philosophy. Ferruccio claims he is able to sleep anytime he wants by merely exercising his will, and credits the German philosopher with divulging such power. Guido is intrigued by it. He will use Schopenhauer successfully a couple of times. He makes Dora turn around in the theatre, and above all he wills the SS's dog away from Giosue's hiding place. It all seems like an innocent, low-brow, and basically inaccurate use of a philosopher who is still popular enough to suffer all sorts of appropriations from "below." Benigni, however, seems to be aware that there is more to Schopenhauer, that his work is a site of competing readings, and that his philosophy matters.
After the death of Marx, Schopenhauer is the most widely read among the nineteenth-century's great thinkers, mainly because he was the first Westerner to incorporate elements of Eastern philosophy into his system. Buddhism and the Upanishads had a large influence upon him and interacted with Kant to give rise to formulations that would subsequently trickle down in many beliefs and ideologies. Schopenhauer's central idea is that life is regulated by the "will to live," which is not of the mind but is rooted in the very fabric of our bodies. We think that our mental representations are autonomous, but everything that we think is in fact subordinated to the physical duty of avoiding suffering and empowering our lives, even if it entails making other people suffer. It is an impassive and impersonal mechanism that Schopenhauer regards with a wisdom and a fatalism borrowed from Eastern thought (and easily mistaken for pessimism). Life is indeed a game, and the ultimate deity has the dual face of Shiva, whose cosmic dance at once symbolizes creation and destruction, laughter and tears. Prompted perhaps by leftovers of Christ's most ideal message, Schopenhauer theorized the possibility of rising above selfishness. He regarded Mahayana Buddhism as the example of a possible if difficult escape from the rules of the selfish game played by the will to live in all organisms. Some exceptional human beings may reach such a level of empathy with the suffering of others that they come to regard it as if it were their own. At that stage, the stage where all suffering matters, these extraordinary individuals stop obeying the tyrannical will and practice compassion, or, to put it in Buddhist terms, they become bodhisattvas.
We are now in a position to appreciate the complexity of the use that La vita e bella makes of Schopenhauer. In the first place, the fact that Schopenhauer is a German philosopher resonates with a film on the Holocaust. This fact is particularly true since Schopenhauer was appropriated, needless to say superficially, by the Nazis through Nietzsche's "will to power." The "will to live" (that Schopenhauer regarded as the rule of the game called life) became, in the Nazi reading of the philosopher, a legitimation for their aggressive search of Lebensraum, or vital space. Benigni/Guido thus pits one misreading of Schopenhauer against another. What might go lost in the farce is the subtle irony of a film that takes a philosopher misused by the Nazis and plays him against them, thus revealing their ignorance as well as the possibility of oppositional readings. Guido shows the possibility of a pop reading of Schopenhauer that does not result in Nazism but in a New Age-ish "fuzzy-thinking." More than that, the film also offers a practical example of a life made beautiful by the sacrifice of an individual, Guido, who embodies the German philosopher's idea(l) of an exceptional human being. For Guido regards life as a dream, a game, and is capable of so much love as to detach himself from his own contingent suffering. A numinous father, he exemplifies the individual who overcomes the gravitational pull of the will to live, thereby putting someone else's pain before his own and sacrificing himself.
Schopenhauer's role in the allegorical scheme is but an example, undoubtedly the most substantive, of the pleasures offered by a close reading of the film. The Nazi doctor's name, Lessing (Horst Buchholz), evokes the author of the 1778-79 play Nathan the Wise, which, for the first time in German culture, championed religious tolerance towards the Jews. When Lessing stealthily draws Guido aside, La vita e bella makes viewers hope that the doctor intends to help. But Lessing loses sleep over a riddle that he cannot solve, and oblivious to Guido's reality, asks him for help. Is the film suggesting that writing (or making films) against oppression is futile unless backed by practice? Is it a sarcastic commentary on the value of intellectuals and their riddles? Be that as it may, the character of Lessing haunts us as much as he is himself haunted. And there is another ironic reference to a German great in the film: the composer Jacques Offenbach, whose Barcarolle we hear twice, and who was, yes, Jewish .
Last but not least the father's and the son's names, respectively Guido and Giosue Orefice, cleverly function on both narrative levels, the historical and the allegorical, the real and the game. In Voices from the Holocaust, Sylvia Rothchild interviews two Italian Jews, Ora Kohn and Gastone Orefice. The former is from Turin; the latter, whom I shall call G. Orefice to stress the similarity with the film's protagonists, is from Livorno in Tuscany, the region from which both Benigni and Guido come. (The film's first half takes place in the Tuscan town of Arezzo.) Fragments of Rothchild's interview with G. Orefice were published in the already mentioned The Italians and the Holocaust, Zuccotti's authoritative study that Benigni--I believe--must have consulted while researching the film. Indeed G. Orefice's testimony fits perfectly La vita e bella's design: "The majority of the Jews were more Italian than Jews," says G. Orefice, "and thought they were living in a good regime--until the persecution began" (Rothchild 211; Zuccotti 26-27). In addition to being a Jewish last name with a referential dimension in the history of the Holocaust, orefice means goldsmith, and it may therefore carry a symbolic potential, for Guido neither fashions objects of gold nor deals in gold articles. In fact, the Orefice family was not sent to the concentration camp because the Nazis wanted their material wealth (aurum). Ultimately, two members of the Orefice family overcame their fate by virtue of the spiritual wisdom and personal sacrifice of Guido, who was tested like the just (the gold) of the Old Testament (Sap. 3:6).
Guido, besides being a man's name with a famous antecedent in Italian cinema--the spiritually starved, albeit self-absorbed protagonist of Fellini's 8 1/2--is also a form of the verb guidare, which means at once to drive and to guide. Leaving unexplored the driving symbolism (although the film introduces its textuality as a brake-less car), let me concentrate on Guido as guide. We have seen how Guido's game practically guides Giosue out of the Holocaust. Giosue (Joshua) is the name of the prophet who guided the Jews into the Promised Land, and the book of Joshua is the first after the Torah, describing Israel's entry into the Promised Land. Guido, or guide, is another Moses, who drove Israel out of Egypt and through the desert but was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. A military leader, Joshua led Israel across the Jordan and into the Promised Land. In the film Giosue sees the advancing, victorious tank as the sign of his father's kept promise. As an innocent and defenseless child, he symbolizes a future life that has nothing in common with the bloody victories of his Old Testament namesake, the defeated Nazis' policy of extermination, or even the Americans' welcomed arrival on a tank, a war machine par excellence.
Guido is the one who enables Joshua to be the final guide of his people; he is the father, or the Father, who propels the Exodus and sustains the crossing of the desert. (Exodus, Numbers and Leviticus are full of God's rules for a "game" the correct playing of which warrants the Promised Land.) As every Jew sadly knows, even something so absolutely horrible as the Holocaust had its positive sides: the return to Israel. The "Abbiamo vinto!" ("We won!") at the end of La vita e bella is not the happy ending that seals a trivialized Holocaust. It is the cry of triumph with which a people marked for extinction transformed their darkest hour into a new beginning.
But there's more: Giosue/Joshua/Yeshua is not only the name of the prophet of the sixth book in the Old Testament. It is also the Jewish name for Jesus. In the film, Giosue materializes suddenly halfway through as the product of the fabulous love story between Dora and Guido. I am not suggesting that Joshua is a Christ figure. If we remember, however, that Christians and Italian Catholics especially have the bad habit of forgetting Jesus's Jewish-ness, we may appreciate this additional ramification of the son's name. It is a reminder to all Italians that their cultural hero is in fact the Other, someone they themselves persecuted while blaming the Jewish Other for it.
La vita e bella is not the first film that attempts a comedic approach in the depiction of Nazi monstrosity. Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940--Guido's number in the camp is the same as Chaplin's Jewish barber's--Lubitsch's To Be or Not To Be (1942), and Mel Brooks's 1983 remake of the latter had already done that. Of course Chaplin's and Lubitsch's films were pre-Holocaust, but they can be considered as precedents of La vita e bella. Their authors thought that comedic spirit and laughter would constitute a weapon and a medicine, a response of resilience to an enemy that expected only tragedy's lament. There is also a mysterious Jerry Lewis film, The Day the Clown Cried (1971). Reportedly about a clown called on to sugarcoat extermination in a death camp, this film was shelved before its release, apparently because producers were afraid of public reactions. Finally, Lina Wertmuller's Seven Beauties (1976) brought grotesque comedy to the camps, but it did not really touch the Holocaust directly.
In addition to these films, there is a small but significant body of literary works that dared to stray variously from realism and high drama to introduce "the comic": Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (1948), Andre Schwarz-Bart's The Last of the Just (1959), Jurek Becker's Jacob the Liar (1969), Leslie Epstein's King of the Jews (1979), and Aron Appelfeld's Badenheim 1939 (1980). Art Spiegelman's Maus (1986) successfully proved that even comics could respect the Holocaust and provide yet another tool for the dissemination of its memory.
The crucial theoretical piece in the debate sparked by the juxtaposition of laughter and the Holocaust is the essay with which my article began, Des Pres's "Holocaust Laughter." Here, Des Pres argues that This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, King of the Jews, and Maus not only respected the Holocaust (in spite of their generic transgressions) but turned out to be more effective than most tragic, realistic portrayals of it. For "it's not fear and sorrow we need more of, but undaunted vision. The paradox of the comic approach is that by setting things at a distance it permits us a tougher, more active response" (286). Des Pres finds that "tragedy and lamentation affirm what is and proceed largely in a mimetic mode" so that we are "forced to a standstill by the matter we behold" (279). On the contrary, "as works of art that include a comic element," these three books "give us laughter's benefits without betraying our deeper convictions" (286). Des Pres's brilliant discussion raises some fascinating questions. If realism is all that is allowed in cinematic representations of the Holocaust, where can we go next? Should we push on the Schindler's List model, piling horror on horror, pity upon pity? Should we escalate the representation of violence by becoming more graphic and tragic? Aside from the fact that realistic films may give the false impression that the Holocaust can be represented, "serious" comedy (which, like Mihaileanu's Train of Life and La vita e bella, does not laugh about the Holocaust but against its deadening weight) may constitute a viable option. Provided of course that we take it seriously.
Benigni, Roberto. www1.http://www.isg.it/pubb/2001/inter/intben.htm.
--. Life Is Beautiful. Miramax Press Kit 18 Sept. 1998.
Bourdieu, Pierre. La Distinction. Paris: Minuit, 1979.
Des Pres, Terrence. "Holocaust Laughter." Writing into the World. New York: Viking, 1991. 77-86.
Hoberman, J. "Nazi Business." The Village Voice (27 Oct. 1998): 98.
Jousse, T. "Cannes." Cahiers du Cinema 525 (June 1998): 20-23.
Kauffmann, Stanley. "Changing the Past." The New Republic (23 Nov. 1998): 26-27.
Kotzin, Daniel. "A Clown in the Camps." Jerusalem Report (26 Oct. 1998): 40-45.
Kun, Josh. "The Yiddish Are Coming." The Boston Phoenix (6 Nov. 1998): 9.
Martinelli, Massimo, et. al. Benigni Roberto di Luigi fu Remigio. Milano: Leonardo, 1997.
Peary, Gerald. "No Laughing Matter." The Boston Phoenix (30 Oct. 1998): 9.
Rebichon, M. "Le Musee Imaginaire." Studio hors ser. L'Annee Cinema (98 December 1998): 91-95.
Rothchild, Sylvia. Voices from the Holocaust. New York: Meridian, 1981.
Schickel, Richard. "Fascist Fable." Time (9 Nov. 1998): 116-17.
Simonelli, G. & G. Tramontana. Datemi un Nobel: l'opera comica di Roberto Benigni. Alessandria: Falsopiano, 1998.
Stanley, Alessandra. "The Funniest Italian You Probably Never Heard Of." New York Times Magazine (11 Oct. 1998): 42-45.
Stille, Alexander. Benevolence and Betrayal. New York: Summit, 1991.
Zuccotti, Susan. The Italians and the Holocaust. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.
* A different version of this essay is scheduled to appear in Film Quarterly and Jewish Social Studies.
(1) Train of Life has not yet been distributed in the U.S. It played however at the Boston Jewish Film Festival (BJFF). It tells the story of a French Jewish village (schtetl) whose elders decide to dodge the Nazi by "deporting themselves." They buy a train, make German uniforms for half of their men, and pretend that the entire village is being deported to Auschwitz, when in fact the train tries to reach Palestine.
(2) Legend has it that Charlie Chaplin, when asked whether or not he was Jewish on occasion of the release of The Great Dictator (1940), replied: "I don't have that honor."
(3) There is a follow up to Peary's review. After reading it, I called the Phoenix's film editor, Peter Keough, asking whether he would be interested in another viewpoint. "Maybe as a letter," he said, hesitatingly. I wrote a couple of pages, and, predictably, they were neither published nor acknowledged. One week later, the BJFF presented The Train of Life at a local theatre. The comparison with La vita e bella was unavoidable. Josh Kun, in charge of covering the Festival, wrote that Train of Life, unlike La vita e bella, "isn't so much humor about the Holocaust as it is humor imagining a way out of the Holocaust." Clearly he had misread La vita e bella, since Benigni's film is exactly "humor imagining a way out of the Holocaust." I wrote a one-page letter, asking for an explanation and "begging" them to publish at least some of the sources I had suggested, where interested readers (who we all knew were/are many) would be able to find something substantive about La vita e bella. Needless to say, my letter was neither published nor acknowledged. I should add that Peary is a knowledgeable cinephile with a passion for the New Wave, Godard, etc. My attack is ad positionem and not ad hominem. Besides, his review of Benigni's film is exemplary to the point of unconscious self-parody, and I could not avoid making him into a straw-man of sorts. As I suggest in the course of my essay, his reasons for bashing La vita e bella go beyond his Jewish-ness, and originate in something that is rarely emphasized, even though it should be.
(4) Kauffmann goes so far as to suggest that "apparently he [Benigni] couldn't devise enough material to set the whole film in the camp, so he fills the first half of the picture with his slapstick (silhouette) adventures" (26). Schickel, arguing that the film "trivializes the holocaust," suggests that "sentimentality is a kind of fascism too, robbing us of judgment and moral acuity, and needs to be resisted" (117). (I cannot help asking: If he is so concerned with people being robbed of judgment and moral acuity, why does he write for Time, a magazine that is the epitome of ideological whitewashing?) I have no problems with Hoberman's negative stand, since he takes the film seriously enough to turn the review into a site for useful information and stimulating opinions. Indeed, it is a tribute to his intelligence and professionalism that his "negative" review does a better job on La vita e bella than many of the opposite sign.
(5) Of course Benigni's films would fall under the occasional scrutiny of Italianists, historians of popular culture, and scholars of the Commedia all'italiana. By "silence," I intend the lack of scholarly interest in either Benigni as an auteur, or his films as texts worth exploring for reasons other than their being among the very few Italian cultural commodities capable of holding their own against Hollywood's neo-colonial hegemony.
(6) I accessed this interview, which can be downloaded, on the World Wide Web. It is one of the interviews that fueled my conviction, voiced in this paragraph, that Benigni has a wide range of cultural interests ranging from the Buddha to Schopenhauer, from Dante to St. Francis, etc. Considerations of space kept me from providing a history of Benigni's cultural/cinematic career, for which see Simonelli and Tramontana (16-22; 136-59), and Martinelli (91-122).
(7) In addition to the interview cited in note 6, see also Rebichon's "Le Musee Imaginaire," where the Italian director surveys his own artistic and cultural tastes.
(8) Because of lack of space, I cannot discuss writer's Vittorio Cerami vital collaboration with Benigni in the film script (see bibliography on Benigni). Already a collaborator of such directors as Pasolini (e.g., Hawks and Sparrows) and Amelio (e.g., Open Doors), Cerami co-wrote Benigni's last four films, from Il piccolo diavolo (1989) to La vita e bella. Everything I say about the script must be thought of as the result of a collaboration of two people rather than the work of a single auteur.
(9) Actually this image is a visual quote from Pasolini's Accattone. During his ill-fated attempt to reform, Accattone tries working. He has to unload huge scraps of iron all day. After a while, he collapses with fatigue and exclaims: "Where are we, in Buchenwald?"
(10) Un tempo per ridere, un tempo per piangere. In Italy, film showings include a break in the middle, the two segments of the film being called primo tempo and secondo tempo.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1999|
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