The Common Good
May-June 1999

A Sweet But Painful Joy

by Ed Spivey Jr. | May-June 1999

In the end, a paean to Life.

Life is beautiful. Hardly the sentiment for a film set partly in a German concentration camp. But Roberto Benigni’s La Vita + Bella (Life Is Beautiful) has used this paradox to make a wonderfully sweet, deeply sad, ultimately triumphant exclamation of love and sacrifice.

In a courageous departure from what Italian film audiences have come to expect from their leading comic actor, Benigni himself wrote and directed this homage to a father’s love, and received this year’s Best Actor Oscar for his effort. The bond between Benigni and the impish Giorgio Cantarini, as his son Goshue (pronounced Joshu-ay), contrasts sharply with the pathos of their village in pre-World War II Italy. The rest of their town may be concerned about racial purity and national pride, but it’s bath night, so father and son must conspire to hide from Mom.

Like a symphony with distinct but inseparable parts, Life Is Beautiful is a film in two movements that seem at first disharmonious, if not completely out of sync. The first half of the film follows the Chaplinesque Guido (Benigni) as he comically wiggles his way into the heart of his love-at-first-sight (real-life wife Nicoletta Braschi). Even his country’s slow turn to fascism is kept at arm’s length, its local emissaries played for buffoons as his romance leads to marriage and then to a delightful son whose favorite plaything is a toy tank.

At this point your heart anticipates the happily-ever-after; instead, however, the second movement begins and the darkness comes.

Marked by their Jewishness, Guido and Goshue are abruptly taken to a train bound for a concentration camp. As they are squeezed into the train car, Guido spontaneously begins the charade that will carry them through the coming ordeal. It’s all a big game, he tells his son. "It took me a whole month to plan this thing! Look, we got the last two places in line!"

They arrive at the colorless camp, a place of dead and dying, but Guido keeps Goshue emotionally suspended above it. When a burly German guard storms into the barracks to announce the camp rules, Guido volunteers to translate for his Italian cellmates. Not understanding German, Guido instead apes the officer by shouting out the rules of the "game": "If you cry, you lose! If you want to see your momma, you lose! If you want a snack, you lose! And now, I must go and play hide and seek!" Goshue takes all of this in, standing wide-eyed and believing in the midst of the broken spirits surrounding him.

The prize is "a real tank!" and Guido, despite his exhaustion from each day’s forced labor, keeps his son’s mind focused on the coveted award by tallying their "score" each night. Father and son share the day’s portion of stale bread crust and plan their next strategy for keeping Goshue hidden and for increasing their score.

IN GUIDO WE see a determined devotion to love. Earlier in the film we watch a gaudy production of an Offenbach opera that reveals Italy’s decadent self-delusion. But in the concentration camp, that same piece of music is redeemed as Guido finds a record and risks severe punishment by playing it out a window for his wife—who is held in another barracks—to hear. In the gray despair of the camp, the music soars in a surreal tenderness. Connected only by the music, the two lovers’ hearts touch nonetheless.

Toward the end, Guido, weary of his own deceptions, carries his sleeping child across a fog-shrouded courtyard, murmuring, "Maybe it is only a dream." As if in answer, the fog separates to reveal an enormous wall of burnt corpses, bodies flung upon bodies. It is a living nightmare, and only Guido’s love has kept his son’s body and spirit from that obscene heap.

The Nazi death camp has become the 20th century’s ultimate symbol of depravity. In truth, it was an anti-life camp, a place where death was inevitable but often did not come until the essence of life had been systematically destroyed by brutality and deprivation. Hope was taken away long before the bodies had ceased to breathe.

The sweet joy of Life Is Beautiful is that love always wins. Even in death, love transcends, because those that love can never be separated from each other. And those that hate—despite their delusions—do not utter the final word. —Ed Spivey Jr.

Life Is Beautiful. Roberto Benigni. Miramax Films, 1998.

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