Something Not At All Beautiful

One thing I share with Norm is a deep loathing of the film Life is Beautiful. So go read his thoughts on the subject here and here, where he’s reprinting the relevant section of his critical piece on the film from Imprints, the small-circulation socialist journal.

I nod at almost every sentence, either agreeing, or seeing exactly where he’s coming from and strongly sympathizing, or not knowing exactly what he’s talking about because I don’t know the other artworks he mentions, but strongly suspecting that he’s onto something. And I also agree with his central argument about what it is that’s really wrong with the film, which is more or less why I hated the film so much when I saw it in 1999 — which also happens to be the reason why I think the film failed in its own – or at least in its own director’s – terms.

I read an interview somewhere where Benigni said something about how he wanted to make a film in which he put his stock clown character in the most extreme situation imaginable. And that’s not obviously an unworthy goal. But the point is that he just didn’t manage to do that in La vita è bella, because again and again in the film the camp was presented as being a less oppressive place than we have reason to believe that Nazi camps in fact were (even in the absence of the kinds of gruesome scenes that Norm lists as being absent from the mind’s eye when viewing the film). Benigni’s character is tolerably able to move around the camp unmolested at night, get work in the officer’s lodgings, exchange certain kinds of messages with his wife, etc., as he continues the work of persuading his child that this is all a game. And so whatever else this is, this isn’t a film in which the stock character is placed in the most extreme situation imaginable, but a film in which the representation of a Nazi extermination camp is organised around the requirements of the plot of a light comedy. And that (or so it seems to me) is a pretty ethically dubious way of manufacturing Holocaust-related art.

Perhaps I saw the film too soon after a visit to Auschwitz/Birkenau, so I couldn’t help but relate what I saw on the screen to what I’d seen in Poland and read about beforehand, but in general as I watched the film, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that — some powerful images aside — Benigni had given us a much kinder, gentler Nazi camp than the historical record warranted. Artistically, that fact was fatal both for my enjoyment of the film (not that I want to watch films of Nazi atrocities, please note) and, so it seemed to me subsequently, for what I learned about the director’s own artistic ambitions. And politically it seemed repulsive, because for better or for worse we live in an era where lots of people get their education about subjects as serious as the Holocaust from films like La vita è bella, and I’d certainly hate it if this film really were the source of a lot of people’s Holocaust awareness.

A small number of people whose judgment I generally respect tell me that they think it’s not a bad film, all things considered. But it really, really stank for me. I mean, I hated Ridicule for lots of reasons. But when all’s said and done, that was just unfunny and generally worthless. La vita è bella is something else altogether.

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