Sheer Melody

A mole's eye-view of the Cosmos

Life is beautiful

I re-visited “Life is Beautiful” yesterday. One of my favorite movies of all time, this is one movie which has received its fair share of criticism and applause. Ferociously criticized for trivializing the gory details of the holocaust, it has angered the left wing in Italy and a lot of other countries which had been pained by those six years from 1939 to 1945. In spite of this, I choose to take a rather liberal stand with the movie. Maybe, I am exempted from feeling any rage for the basic fact that I was in no way related to the holocaust. However, there are two movies which have really influenced me in forming my views on the holocaust; “Life is Beautiful” is one of them. The other, of course, is Schindler’s List, another landmark achievement. But well, that’s the topic of another post.

Life is beautiful delves into the power of humor to alleviate all of life’s sufferings. Most importantly, it delivers the message that life is always beautiful, provided you choose to make it so. Benigni is widely regarded as the Jim Carey of Europe, but none of his previous movies managed to evoke the charm and freshness which this movie does. Put very simply, this movie is a poetic romantic comedy of survival in the face of overwhelming odds.

The movie has two defining acts which form its structure – one before the war, and the latter, a few years later - during the war. Guido, played by Benigni, is a small town man, who has come to the city to take a job as a waiter in a lavishly elegant restaurant. It is here that he meets and falls in love with his wife (also his real-life wife) – Nicolleta Braschi. What follows is forty-five minutes of humorous courtship – quirky at times, and overbearing at times. And in between all this courtship the couple stumbles upon several instances of hatred, rage and dissent – seeds of bigotry showing the fascists’ rise to power. Soon, we realize that Guido is Jewish. It is at this juncture that comedy is quickly replaced with a sense of despair, evident on everyone but Guido. Signs of anti-Semitism appear all around, and Guido is forced to fall back on comedy as the only refuge – the only way to shield their innocent son from the horrors of the Third Reich. Guido and his son are soon captured and transferred to one of the numerous concentration camps; and Guido’s instinct for self-preservation develops a much-needed urgency and energy. The non-working children and elderly are condemned to sure death; forcing Guido to hide the young kind in the camp. Elaborate rules of a non-existent game are formed, promising wondrous rewards for the winner, to shield the young lad from the horrors of the camp. Guido uses all his wits to save the one soul that he loves, in a world of unimaginable horror.

The movie is not (repeat, not) technically brilliant. It lacks a basic form, structure and the comedy in the first half is surprisingly flat at times. In spite of all these basic flaws, technical and non-technical, the movie scores because of the sheer weight of human emotion which overpowers you at the end. The ability to laugh is what distinguishes humans from animals, and it feels strange to wonder and actually imagine that after all, it was humans who created and nurtured the horrors of the concentration camp. What this film does essentially is champion the cause of humor over hatred, love of anger. The first half may seem like a romantic farce, but it triumphs because it manages to show terror, hatred, racism and the constant threat of death in the air without any explicit imagery. It lets people use their imaginations, making the horror even more powerful, more palpable. At the end of the day, the lyricism of the movie outweighs the lack of subtlety. It is Benigni’s wonderful message about the ability of the human spirit to triumph, that makes this movie worth watching, time and again…

Postscript: The film's title came from Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who wrote that he believed ''life is beautiful,'' even as he sat trapped in a bunker, waiting for Stalin's agents to assassinate him. Benigni found the statement profound, saying ''I fell in love with this simple phrase, 'Life is beautiful.' Even with darkness all around us, we can still find beauty. That is true strength.''

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