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Life Is Beautiful

     Peary? My family name was Pisarevsky, changed at Ellis Island by American officials. My parents are Russian-born Jews. What you see below is, I suppose, an angry Jewish column.

     For a while, Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful is the fable it claims to be, the fairy-tale courtship of Guido (Benigni), a homely waiter in the Tuscan town of Arezzo, and Dora (Nicolette Braschi), an aristocrat schoolteacher. He calls her "Princess" and wins Dora's hand in marriage by whisking her off on horseback. The year is 1939, and Dora gives birth. Cut to five years later, and their boy, Giosuè (Giorgio Cantarini), is charcoal-eyed and adorable. In fact, Guido and Giosuè together constitute Benigni's homage to Chaplin and little Jackie Coogan in 1921's The Kid.

     To this point in the film, a liking for Life Is Beautiful depends on your take on Benigni. He's a national treasure in Italy for his TV shows and popular movies, and many think him irresistibly hilarious in Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law and Night on Earth. I'm in the minority who find Benigni a bothersome amalgam of agitated tics and feeble jokes, and I'm put off by his nervous self-absorption. "Don't take your eyes off me!" his every gesture begs. "Look, I'll climb on a table for you!" It's unbecomingly Jerry Lewis-like, Robin Williams-like, the fatal combo of insecurity and vanity.

     Well, so what if I'm not won over by Benigni in the opening section of Life Is Beautiful? Hey, it's only a frivolous movie. But there's more than half to go, and that's where the filmmaker's comedic ambitions change their course. Stupidly. Perniciously.

     "I was talking to my screenwriter about putting my body -- a comedian's body -- in an extreme situation," Benigni (in the November Interview) offers as his solipsistic reasoning for the latter portion of Life Is Beautiful. As it's 1944, why not have his Guido, a later-day Tramp, bring some classic comic fun (and love!) to the extermination days of World War II? In a suddenly jolting episode, Life Is Beautiful turns Schindler's List when Guido, Dora, and Giosuè are packed onto a Nazi train.

     (What's the German motivation for picking on Guido? Glad you asked. In an earlier scene, the utterly goy Benigni identifies his character as being Jewish. Oh? It's as unsettlingly unbelievable as, say, Bill Weld sitting down hungrily to gefilte fish.)

     Arriving at an unnamed death camp, Guido gets to work as a waiter at a Nazi party. (Imagine the real-life Master Race letting a poisonous Jew touch their food!) Back in the barracks, he makes funny, putting on a happy face for his boy. As for the other doomed (Jewish?) imprisoned: they keep quiet, they sleep, they hang their heads low. They're a dour supernumerary backdrop (Hitler didn't know their identities either!) to Benigni's spotlit pick-yourself-up/dust-yourself-off show-biz optimism.

     Here in the camp, life might suck for a time, daily existence is hard work, the few Nazis we see are pretty humorless, and, alas, some people die, though off screen. (Benigni: "There's no explicit violence because it's not my style.") Meanwhile, Guido convinces Giosuè that the death camp is actually a kind of large-scale conceptual game for children. Looked at correctly, the hiding out and forced starvation are actually kind of . . . fun.

     Oy vay iz mir!

     Life Is Beautiful isn't just the film title, it's Benigni's reprehensible moral. He dares to assign a transcendent meaning to the Holocaust, which to most Jews resonates with non-meaning, a hollow waste of many millions of lives.

     Benigni's revisionist upbeat Holocaust view has him emphasize only the living: he shows the many, many from his camp (too many!) who survived. There's not only a light at the end of the railroad tracks but sunshine, green fields, and flowers, and instantly reunited families, who are tired but otherwise okay from years at Dachau or Auschwitz. The several survivors Benigni focuses on seem immediately happy. As for the one who doesn't survive, among millions left behind in the night and fog, he's turned into a wistful memory, discussed nostalgically in a voiceover.

     "Life is beautiful." Can you imagine anyone who actually survived the death camps saying that? Were any left who weren't totally numbed and scarred, shaken in their souls by a seemingly absent God, hateful of humanity for allowing the Germans to do their will?

     "Historically, the movie may have its inaccuracies," Benigni concedes in Interview. "But it's a story about love, not a documentary."

     No, it's not a documentary. Life Is Beautiful offers a feel-good Final Solution, a smiley-face Holocaust.

     There are further horrors beyond the movie: ahistoric film critics who slaver over it, fuzzy-thinking crowds who embrace it. Distributed by powerhouse Miramax Films, which specializes in marketing calculatedly sentimental arthouse pictures, Life Is Beautiful garnered audience awards at Cannes, Toronto, Vancouver. At Toronto, I heard a film-industry type's jeremiad: "Mark my words! Life Is Beautiful isn't going to be the Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. It's going to be nominated for Best Picture! And win!"

     Oy gevalt! I must add that many blessing this picture are my own Chosen People, who definitely should know better. Miramax bosses Harvey and Bob Weinstein (Jewish! Jewish!) have lined up endorsements from groups like the Anti-Defamation League; and Life Is Beautiful won the Best Jewish Experience Award at, of all places, the Jerusalem Film Fest.

     See Begnini's film for yourself. Could be you'll admire it, whatever your religion. But this Jew-boy journalist holds out, considering that Jerusalem award a blasphemy, and the Holocaust misrepresentations of Life Is Beautiful unforgivably obscene.

(Boston Phoenix, November 2, 1998)

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