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).
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