Several humorists have made an effort to tread that delicate line between humor and tragedy. A small number of them have ever been successful. Jerry Lewis, in ‘The Day the Clown Cried’, featuring Lewis as a circus clown trying to cheer up children in a WWII prison camp even tried his hand at making a prison camp comedy. Most recently, Billy Crystal has injected his films (Father’s Day, My Giant) with a cloying dose of schmaltz and even Chaplin got the mixture right in films.
Roberto Benigni in his film, ‘Life is Beautiful’, applies his tragedy with an eyedropper of a precise mixture of optimistic humor and touching emotion. The idea of a comedy set against the backdrop of the tragedy begs the question: Are there subjects too dark to be dealt with comedically? Perhaps comedy is the best way to deal with tragedies, and besides all criticism Benigni has shown us so.
Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful”
An unlikely comedy about a father’s effort to shield his son from the dreadfulness of the Holocaust. According to Halloran, “La Vita e bella is most disturbing in the context of actor/director Roberto Benigni’s filmography. And it’s plenty disturbing on its own, as it will forever go down in film history as ‘that comedy set in the concentration camp’.”
Benigni never considered writing and directing a movie about Fascist Italy until he tried to envision the most intense circumstance in which to position his comic alter ego. He could reflect of no darker time in our entire history than the Holocaust. Benigni read something that struck his heart, it was a line ascribed to the revolutionary Trotsky. At the time, Trotsky was trapped in bunker, waiting for Stalin’s hit men to kill him, yet, in that very instant of dread, Trotsky wrote that he still considered, “Life is beautiful.”
While Benigni states that he is the first comedian to make a film about the Holocaust, he’s well aware that Charlie Chaplin lead him by more than 50 years with his 1940 spoof on Adolf Hitler, “The Great Dictator.” In fact, the number on Guido’s prison uniform in “Life Is Beautiful” ‘ 0737’ is a nod to Chaplin, who wore the identical number in ‘The Great Dictator’. “Charlie Chaplin has influenced everything I’ve ever done. Just everything,” Benigni says. “He is the prince of each comedian in the world. Chaplin is like our Michelangelo.”
But many a critics don’t agree on this, during the press conference at Cannes, one French journalist stood up to blame Benigni of scorning the victims of the Holocaust, pronouncing that he was “scandalized” by the movie. A reporter from the International Herald Tribune vocalized that she “loathed this film”, and the London Guardian wrote that it was a miserably insufficient memorial to the vile events of the Holocaust. ‘Life Is Beautiful’ is not a comedy about the Holocaust; it’s a movie by a comedian about the Holocaust. The character he portrays might horse around, but the Holocaust is never played down. “There’s been some people, not a lot, but some people who felt in a very, very strong way, like I touched something untouchable,” Benigni says. “The last thing I wanted was to hurt somebody or be offensive with the memory of the Holocaust, because I started from the opposite idea, of course. I wanted to make a beautiful movie, and especially to say something poetic.” (Milvy, 1998)
Benigni and Braschi declare that the intention of the movie was to make audiences laugh and cry. “That cry is purifying,” says Braschi. “It makes you feel better because there’s something that gets near to the essence of the life and the death. So it’s a good cry.”(Okwu, 1998)
Humor can be used as a salve and a leveler; it also helps shape an understanding of events that are otherwise beyond comprehension. The grimmest of national tragedies inevitably triggers a backwash of sick jokes, the vileness of which increases in proportion to the seriousness of the incident. With his newest film, however, Benigni seems to have locked onto a no-lose combination of humor and pathos. Life is Beautiful is, ostensibly, a comedy about life in a Nazi prison camp. That isn’t a comic subject most folks would dare to touch. We’re not talking about a foolish POW camp a la “Hogan’s Heroes” either. We’re talking a real deal Jewish death camp. Benigni has crafted a wonderful, funny and life-affirming little gem.