Sun, 20 Feb 2000

'Life is Beautiful' gambles with historical tragedy

By Tam Notosusanto

JAKARTA (JP): In some cases, comedy is about laughing at other people's injuries. To get some laughs from the audience, it's pretty common to present someone who trips and falls over or show someone's face covered in custard. But when comedy covers harsher human suffering, it really is venturing into riskier terrain.

With Life is Beautiful (La Vita e Bella), Roberto Benigni attempts to do both. In the film's first hour, the actor-writer- director demonstrates what he is well-known for in Italy and other parts of the world: his own brand of slapstick and screwball humor. He plays a hyperactive sprite who scurries around, outwitting his foes and winning the love of the girl he adores, in a simple, thinly constructed story line.

But as the film steps into its next hour, it becomes something totally different. It uses the Holocaust as a backdrop for Benigni's story, in which his character, a Jew, along with his family, are incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp. And amazingly, this part of the film is still firmly rooted in comedy.

Life is Beautiful begins with a prologue that establishes it as a funny movie. Benigni, playing the high-spirited Guido and his friend Ferruccio (Sergio Bustric) are driving through the countryside of Tuscany when they start to have a brake problem. As the car becomes uncontrollable, it jumps into the middle of the motorcade of a potentate who is visiting the region. Guido and Ferruccio are mistaken as the royal guests and are greeted and cheered by the crowd they pass by, while the real monarch is ignored.

The film gets right down to business: as the two friends enter the town of Arezzo, Guido encounters and falls in love at first sight with a schoolteacher named Dora (Nicoletta Braschi). From that point on, the whole story is about Guido's quest to woo and win her over. An obstacle is introduced in the form of Rodolfo (Amerigo Fontani), an imposing fascist official, who also has a crush on Dora. Predictably, it is Guido who prevails.

This first part has plenty of physical shtick, with Benigni going through a whole series of irrepressible antics in portraying a man madly in love. His Guido goes to extremes in declaring his amorousness for Dora, by, for instance, pretending to be a school inspector so that he can visit her at work, or snatching her from Rodolfo at her engagement party to him and running away together on the back of a horse. There's something quite Chaplinesque in the way the small-statured Guido is pitted against the towering, burly antagonists.

But, it is clear from the start that Life is Beautiful is not really just some slapstick movie with a generic comedy plot. The screenplay, by Benigni and Vincenzo Cerami, also contains some catchy one-liners that nicely accentuate the political setting, which is Italy on the eve of the Nazi occupation. At one point, Guido is having a conversation with a rugged shopkeeper, and he wants to ask the man about his political orientation, when suddenly the shopkeeper berates his misbehaving sons: "Adolfo, Benito, stop fighting!"

In another scene, Guido and his elderly uncle discover their horse painted green with the words "Jew horse" scrawled on its body. And Guido, with his usually sunny, delightful manner, remarks, "I didn't know the horse was Jewish."

All that is a precursor to what is coming. The story jumps several years later, when Guido is married to the gentile Dora and they have a little boy, Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini). Their family bliss is destroyed when Guido and Giosue are transported off by Nazi troops to a concentration camp. Refusing to be separated from her family, Dora insists that she be taken as well.

The camp turns out to be the very place where Guido shows his indomitable spirit at its finest. He obstinately attempts to shield Giosue from the horrors of the Nazi camp by telling the child that they are playing an unusual game where the one who does not cry and can withstand the most pain will win a tank as the grand prize.

Benigni is running the risk of directing an offensive movie that trivializes the most horrifying atrocity of the 20th century. But his experimentation pays off, because Life is Beautiful remains a charming, inspiring film until the end, despite its strong subject and his decision to present it as a comedy. Skeptics and jaded observers who cannot palate the glaring implausibilities of the film should note that Benigni's story is a full-blown fantasy, housing a theme about the triumph of the human spirit and a man's unbeatable efforts to save his family.

Benigni himself is the primary motor that energizes the whole movie. As the lead actor, he has the capability of retaining that constantly gleeful, rubbery face, but indicating pain repressed down beneath. The one scene where he laughingly shrugs off his son's bitter questions about their fate in the camp, while evidently groping for more white lies to tell, is proof of a powerful performance. It complements his writing and directing talent, making him a rare, one-man show that is a cherished treasure to world cinema.