Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Elementary Politics of "Life is Beautiful"

Roberto Benigni's internationally successful and acclaimed film, Life is Beautiful (La vita è bella), is one of the most heart-rending and yet heart-warming films of Italian cinema. It's an undeniably beautiful film, but one that demands political analysis and in the course of that analysis, I will be discussing the end of the film, so, for those who care about spoilers, watch the film before reading any further.

The film opens in Arezzo in 1939, when the ever-cheerful, goofy Guido (Benigni), newly arrived from the country, comes to work for his uncle (Giustino Durano) as a waiter. He meets the upper-class Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), who is charmed by his antics and ability to laugh at himself, and who, more importantly, feels utterly stifled by her wealthy family, who have fascist sympathies. The two marry and have a child, Giosuè (Giorgio Cantarini), but Guido - who is Jewish -  and his son are deported to a concentration camp. His wife chooses to board the train taking them away, rather than remain behind in safety. Desperate to protect his son, Guido invents a game, explaining to him that they are there to compete for a grand prize, a real armed tank, and distorting the brutal reality into a surreal, but child-friendly, competition. As news arrives that the Allies are on their way and the Nazis hysterically destroy evidence of the camp, Guido hides his son, but is caught trying to find Dora and shot. At the end of the film, Giosuè emerges from his hiding place to find a friendly American to take him for a ride in a real tank and his mother, who has also survived.

There are several salient issues that are likely to be lost on English-speaking viewers of the film. First, the concentration camp to which Guido and his family are sent is almost certainly intended to be the transit camp at Bolzano, one of the largest the Nazis set up in Italy and the only one that also functioned as a forced-labor camp. Most of the prisoners there were political subversives, though Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Romany were also imprisoned there. The camp became operational relatively late in the war, not until the summer of 1944, and was abandoned by the Nazis in late spring 1945, just before the Allies arrived in the area. As far as I have been able to ascertain, the only major deviation from the historical reality of the camp in the movie is the presence of gas chambers in Bolzano. Since it was primarily a transit camp, those destined to be murdered in gas chambers would have been sent on to Auschwitz or other extermination camps outside of Italy.

Second, the film tends to conflate fascists with Nazi sympathizers and though there was certainly overlap, this is somewhat dishonest. There is in fact only one, single Italian soldier in the film and he doesn't speak - he simply stands and salutes with a stony, unchanging face at an otherwise raucous party. Otherwise, the only fascists we see are bureaucrats, teachers, and an ordinary tradesman who has named his children Benito and Adolf. They are spouting disgusting ideas about "superior race" and toasting a "torta Etiope," a gargantuan cake celebrating the conquering of Ethiopia, but the only violence that they commit is ideologically symbolic - talking, saluting, leaving graffitti scrawled on businesses and property. At the very beginning, a few thugs knock down Guido's uncle, presumably because he's Jewish, but it's an unseen moment that hardly registers and leaves the uncle unharmed.

The Nazis we see in the film, in stark contrast, are all in uniform and only one, Doktor Lessing (Horst Buchholz), appears out of uniform at any point in the film. The primary evil in the film is anti-Semitism, obviously enshrined within Nazism, and seemingly so within Italian fascism, as presented in the film. The only other ill of the fascist regime that gets explored at all is the idiotic amount of red tape required to open a business, but in the end, Guido succeeds in opening his bookshop, so it's a mere annoyance. Thus, within the world of the film, fascists are bigoted, consistently better off economically, capable of nasty symbolic harassment, but not a particularly serious threat, but above all, anti-Semitic. The Nazis, in contrast, murder, torture, and most despicably in the case of Doktor Lessing, beg the starving, imprisoned Guido to help him solve a riddle because it's keeping him awake at night and ruining his life. The fascists are stooges, to laugh at; the Nazis are cruel, callous villains. The politics are hyper-simplified to a simple system in which Nazis are evil, fascists are buffoons, and good people are victims.

As I said above, the film opens in 1939 and this is significant because race laws in Italy were only passed in 1938, as Mussolini began to cozy up to Hitler, and they were extremely unpopular, even within the fascist party. According to Stanley Payne in A History of Fascism, 1914-1945, there a few main reasons for this: 1) the Jewish population was tiny in Italy, less than one tenth of one percent, and thoroughly integrated into Italian communities; 2) Mussolini had consistently up to that point ridiculed Hitler's obsession with race; and shockingly, 3) "the Fascist movement was itself disproportionately Jewish - that is, Jews made up a greater proportion of the party at all stages of its history than of the Italian population as a whole." The race laws actually weakened support for Mussolini, both within the party and within the country as a whole. Unfortunately, they also provided cover for people, fascist or not, to harass Jews with impunity, and far worse, gave the Nazis' anti-Semitic policies a decided boost when they occupied Italy in 1943.

A major issue within the film is that the only female protagonist remains politically undefined. Dora, a gentile engaged to marry a fascist bureaucrat, expresses discontent with her situation and chooses to leave behind her wealthy family to marry a Jewish waiter. Little insight is given into this radical decision. She never expresses an opinion about religion and the closest she comes to making a political statement is to complain that dinner with the prefect is boring. She then makes the astonishing, near-suicidal decision to follow her husband and son into the concentration camp. Her suffering seems like martyrdom, and she is framed like a Madonna, clear-eyed, gaunt, silent, her hair hidden under a scarf, a picture of suffering. She has no political point of view - she is purely a victim.

Though Guido mercilessly mocks the idiocy of fascist ideas like that of the superior race ("a perfect Aryan bellybutton!"), his political naivete is lost only when the reality gets so bad that his and his family's lives are in genuine danger. When his uncle warns him that he too will suffer harassment, he shrugs it off and chooses to remain positive. The uncle is fatalistic and un-protesting and Giosuè, only five years old, obviously cannot begin to comprehend what is happening. This situation creates a political black hole: the positive characters, the ones that we relate to and care about, are essentially apolitical, while Germans - exclusively Nazis in this film - are universally bad, even when they appear at first to be humane.

Thus, Life is Beautiful does not make a particularly complex political statement. Its politics are largely negative, (rightly) critical of the Nazi regime, only (too) gently critical of the fascist regime, and failing to propose any kind of alternative. This political simplicity is in harmony with the emotional tenor of the film and is probably intentional. Benigni has not made any serious statement about the Holocaust, what drove Nazis to commit it or what permitted some of their victims to survive, the thorny ideological messes of either fascism of Nazism, or what sort of political ideology should or could be brought to bear against these racist doctrines. Instead, Life is Beautiful makes precisely that statement: that life is beautiful, and that a father's love for his child can make his life beautiful even under the most barbaric, brutal conditions possible. Instead of positing an alternative political paradigm, Benigni places a set of values - love, tenderness, kindness, beauty, compassion - in opposition to the ideological monoliths of Nazism, and to a lesser extent, fascism. There is value in such a statement, but it lacks nuance and fails to reckon with the uglier parts of humanity, ugliness that can emerge in everyone because only a very naive person can divide that humanity into entirely good people and entirely bad, pure victims and pure perpetrators.

For English-speakers interested in a more nuanced picture of Italy under fascism and under German occupation, there is the essential history by Stanley Payne, A History of Fascism, 1914-1945, the brilliant novel The Garden of the Finzi-Contini by Giorgio Bassani, any and all works by the genius Primo Levi, and many, many brilliant political films, like those of Lina Wertmmüller (Love and Anarchy and Seven Beauties), Federico Fellini (Amarcord), or Bernardo Bertolucci (1900 or The Conformist).

Friday, November 13, 2015

In Praise of Grumpy Characters

I've always had a considerable soft spot for grumpy characters. In fact, more often than not they prove to be my favorites. Their grumpiness only makes them more lovable, more endearing, and it's often a mask for a deeper emotional engagement, a more mature intellect, and a profound love for those in their care. Grumpy characters also, in contrast to their real-life counterparts, attract a degree of affection, both because they make us laugh, often at our own, newly recognized foibles, and because they remain steadfast to their own temperaments. Grumps are nonconformists and dissidents; they speak what they see as the truth whether it is popular or not, and they're willing, if not delighted, to put a dark cast on the world as they see it. And, perhaps most importantly, grumpy characters tend to be those that come through in the end, complaining, lamenting, cursing, and protesting, but there they are, at the side of our heroes.

In T. H. White's The Once and Future King, especially the first volume, The Sword in the Stone, there is not one but two delightfully grumpy characters: Merlyn ("Castor and Pollux blow me to Bermuda!") and Archimedes ("For heaven's sake, stop flying like a woodpecker."). Merlyn's gruffness is due partially to living backwards in time, which is confusing, uncomfortable, and liable to put one in a very bad temper, but he's also sensitive enough emotionally to realize that tenderly expressed sympathy isn't always the kindest response. As for Archimedes, being Merlyn's familiar, the highly educated owl is prone to peevishness and a pedantic, rather prim insistence on formalities. He is most offended when the Wart ventures to call him "Archie." In the Disney animated film, Archimedes is perhaps even grumpier than Merlyn and is without question my very favorite character in the Disney canon. When the Wart tells him he can't read (the Wart is literate in the novel), Archimedes nearly has a fit of apoplexy and then grimly asks, "Well, what do you know? Oh, never mind."

There is no greater grump in literature than Puddleglum ("And you must always remember there's one good thing about being trapped down here: It'll save funeral expenses."), the lugubrious marshwiggle who accompanies Scrubb and Pole on their quest to save Prince Rilian in C. S. Lewis's The Silver Chair. Despite a constant stream of morbid projections onto any and every possible outcome of their quest, Puddleglum is actually quite positive in his way, precisely because he always gets pleasantly surprised that things didn't work out so badly after all, he's a fierce friend, an incorruptible champion for his beliefs, and the success of the children's mission is due in no small part to his efforts as their guide and guardian.

The Psammead ("What place is this?" - "It's a sitting room, of course." - "Then I don't like it.") of E. Nesbit's trilogy, Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Story of the Amulet, is a sand fairy, a rare creature that must grant any wish it hears expressed, puffing out its body and loudly voicing protest at its ill-use, as wish-granting is quite draining. Nevertheless, it develops warm affection towards the children it sends on such fabulous adventures and will deign, if treated with the proper respect, to give excellent advice, with a lecture or two thrown in.

Templeton ("Let him die. I shouldn't care."), the voluptuously gluttonous rat that shares Wilbur's sty in E. B. White's Charlotte's Web, proves rather more difficult to like, but he's invaluable to Charlotte's mission to save Wilbur, since he can leave the barn and seek out exciting new words to describe the anxious porcine in Charlotte's web. The acme of Templeton's life is his visit to the fair where he indulges his gluttony to a near life-ending extent - by the time he returns to Wilbur, he has swollen several times his normal size. What saves Templeton from being a rather disgusting character is precisely the sharp edge of his tongue. He is always selfish and always finds some advantage for himself, and yet, and yet, in the end, he becomes a constant, if crabby, companion for Wilbur in an odd, but binding friendship.

Badger ("Badger hates Society, and invitations, and dinner, and all that sort of thing.”), from Kenneth Grahame's masterpiece The Wind in the Willows, is a rather mysterious character, one that inspires awe as much as anything else. He is unfailingly loyal to his friends, and mindful of their best qualities, but that doesn't stop him from being sternly uncompromising when they behave badly. His solitary life renders him somewhat remote, but when the animals are called to arms to liberate Toad Hall, he proves a deft fighter with his cudgel. He may not care for the lazy, sociable tea parties and picnics of his friends, but his gruffness takes nothing from his capacity for friendship.

It would be remiss to write about grumpy characters without mentioning Grumpy ("And all females is poison! They're full of wicked wiles!" - "What are wicked wiles?" - "I don't know. But I'm agin 'em!") from the landmark Disney film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As one would imagine given his moniker, Grumpy is forever in a foul mood, skeptical, suspicious, somewhat prejudiced, and impatient. Yet, of all the dwarfs, he proves to be Snow White's greatest champion, as well as the most perceptive and decisive of any of the characters in the story.

And, while I've concentrated on the grumps of children's fantasy literature and film, one of the most entertaining grouches of literature is Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot (“I find most of the human race extraordinarily repulsive. They probably reciprocate this feeling.”) Hyperbolically fastidious and fussy, snobbish to a fault, Poirot has little patience for bad cooking, sloppy attire, or less than cultivated manners, yet he can hardly be faulted for dereliction of duty, even when, as seems nearly always to be the case, he is en vacance. Then there is Sherlock Holmes, Carl Fredricksen (Up), Oscar the Grouch, Bagheera, Archie Bunker, and many, many others.

It's well worth noting that all of these characters are male (with the exception of the Psammead, who is unique and an "it" but reads as male), and indeed, it is difficult to find many such grumpy characters that are female. As a woman who is more often than not singularly grumpy, the dearth of characters that are both female and given the latitude to complain and lose her temper without being chastised or rendered hopelessly unsympathetic is a terrible frustration. The unfortunate truth is that most "feminist" characters are allowed as little scope to be unlikable as their more misogynistically portrayed sisters. If a feminist heroine must be an ideal, or "flawed" in such a way to make her slightly imperfect but still likable, then feminism itself avails us little. Most of all, grumpy female characters are often ridiculed, laughed at and not with, and their grumpiness is often explained as the result of past pain, often of a sexual or romantic character (spinsters, ladies jilted at the altar, cuckolded wives - Miss Havisham types), in contrast to the characters above who are grumpy purely and simply because that is who they are.

It's true that in the realms of feminist literary fiction, such a paradigm has been questioned, pulled apart, reinterpreted, and inverted on its head. But these books are hardly mainstream. The examples of grumpy characters cited above are drawn from books and films that are widely read and seen, that have a wide and diverse scope of influence. The best example I can call to mind of a lovable grumpy female character is J. K. Rowling's Professor McGonagall ("You look in excellent health to me, Potter, so you will excuse me if I don't let you off homework today. I assure you that if you do die, you need not hand it in."). Though the gender paradigms of the Harry Potter series are staunchly patriarchal, it does offer, for once in a mainstream context, an unapologetically and unrepentently brusque woman, but the fact remains that much of her grumpiness is rooted in the exercise of a fundamentally maternal role, and thus, not so different from the explosive upsets of Molly Weasley, provoked by her fear for her husband and children. Though it is not explicitly stated in the books, her tragic background of romantic disappointment and heartbreak, revealed through writing on the Pottermore site, makes her teeter on the edge of grumpy by circumstance rather than nature.

However, perhaps mainstream television might succeed where mainstream books do not. In Parks and Recreation, April ("We have a new policy, parks can only be reserved for witch covens and slip 'n slide competitions. Which one are you?") essentially does not smile, though she takes a certain creepy delight in morbidity, she is supremely and purposefully incompetent - one could say that she is peerlessly competent at incompetence - and willfully obstructive, and she claims to hate everything and everyone, but she's perhaps the most loyal, perceptive, caring person in the whole crew, as understanding of Ron Swanson as she is of Lesley Knope, which is why Andr Dwyer, with his puppy dog demeanor and relentless positivity, ends up marrying her. The best part of April though is that she is grumpy because that is who she is. There's no tragic backstory, no unmet appetite. As such, she's a welcome counterpart to the unabatedly sunny, eyes-on-the-prize, and far more culturally acceptable feminism of Lesley Knope. It's certainly possible to have lovable grumpy female characters, but their grumpiness should be organic to who they are, not what they've suffered at the hands of men, not ridiculed, and not dismissed.