We walked into a plush four-screen cinema in the affluent suburbs of east Memphis and took our place in the ticket line. Then we saw it—a sign posted on the ticket booth glass: LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL HAS SUBTITLES. (IT IS NOT IN ENGLISH.)
You could say that sign proved the ignorance and intolerance of the American mass movie audience. You could also say that it certifies Roberto Benigni’s tragi-comedy about love and fascism as a real pop cultural phenomenon. You’d be right both ways.
Obviously the theater staff put up that sign after shocked and outraged customers demanded a refund when they learned that this little Italian movie was actually in Italian. But it is a measure of Benigni’s achievement that his film is showing, and finding an audience, in venues where the last foreign language movie probably featured Asian martial arts. In a season when Hollywood offerings run the usual gamut from teen romance to gutter gunplay, Life Is Beautiful (see "A Sweet But Painful Joy," page 62) proves that there is still a place in the American movie market for ambitious popular art.
Like many boho-Americans of a certain age, I first encountered Roberto Benigni in the 1986 film Down by Law. Benigni played a new arrival from Italy who ended up in the Orleans Parish jail. All through the movie, Benigni’s character kept reciting the single line "It’s a sad and beautiful world." It was one of those signifying one-liners on the order of Casablanca’s "Play it again, Sam" and "What we have here is a failure to communicate," from Cool Hand Luke.
In the years before and since that obscure moment of American glory, Benigni was busy being a major comedy star in Italy. He’s sort of their younger and happier Woody Allen. Somewhere along his career path he also picked up a minor obscenity conviction for a particularly scandalous stand-up routine about Pope John Paul II.
Recently he had an audience with that same pontiff and gave him a big papal hug. If the pope could forgive that Turkish guy who shot him, certainly he can forgive a smart-mouthed comic. And the elderly bishop of Rome is still with-it enough to recognize that, with its themes of sacrificial love in the midst of overwhelming evil, Life Is Beautiful is pushing some important moral buttons in contemporary popular culture.
By now Benigni has been on 60 Minutes and stole the show at the Academy Awards, and even the big American movie audience knows that "It’s a sad and beautiful world" also summarizes his artistic vision. In its own perilous, tightrope-walking way, Life Is Beautiful tries to put both realities—the sadness and the beauty—right in our faces. It portrays both the extremes of human evil and suffering (the extermination of the Jews) and the extremes of human love (the sacrifice of a father for his son), and suggests that they can only be reconciled by embracing the absurd. The art form that most openly embraces the absurd is called comedy. And Benigni’s hero is an incurable funnyman. As Benigni has explained it, the movie is not a comedy about a death camp. It’s a movie about what might have happened to a comedian in a death camp.
That’s where Benigni has run into some trouble. There is a stream of criticism directed against the film that holds that humor and death camps in the same movie should be taboo. Critics have pointed out that Benigni’s camp is not historically accurate. He shies away from a real down-and-dirty depiction of the horror, it is said, and so his "redemption" of it is cheap and phony. In this view the film only diminishes and degrades the true memory of the Holocaust.
Obviously there is a legitimate point here. Life Is Beautiful is not Schindler’s List. But it’s also not Hogan’s Heroes. Except for two brief moments, it doesn’t focus our gaze on what’s happening in the gas chambers and ovens. But it also doesn’t pretend those things aren’t happening. The fact of mass murder very close at hand is the whole point. But so is the equally intense presence of sacrificial love.
I have my own questions about the propriety of what Benigni is up to in Life Is Beautiful. I’m bothered by it. And I’m glad that he dared to bother me in precisely this way.
DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, lives and writes in Ripley, Mississippi.