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'Life's' Surprisingly Graceful Turn

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 30, 1998

  Movie Critic

Life is Beautiful
Roberto Benigni co-wrote, directed and stars in "Life is Beautiful." (Miramax)

Roberto Benigni
Roberto Benigni;
Nicoletta Braschi;
Giustino Durano;
Sergio Bini Bustric;
Marisa Paredes
Running Time:
1 hour, 55 minutes
For disturbing, but not particularly graphic, death camp scenes
Like too much cannoli, large doses of Roberto Benigni's rich lunacy can cloy the senses. The buffoon-star and director of such Italian imports as "Johnny Stecchino" and "The Monster" is often easier to take in small bites, as with his supporting roles in Jim Jarmusch's "Down by Law" and "Night on Earth."

In Benigni's sad, funny and haunting "Life Is Beautiful," this emphatically is not the case. The film, which he co-wrote, directed and stars in, is a radical departure from the comedian's farcical canon. It satisfies like a hot, square meal, although for much of the first two reels it looks like Benigni might be heading in the direction of his same old insubstantial slapstick shtick.

"Life Is Beautiful" begins as the story of bumbling Italian waiter Guido Orefice (Benigni), set in Tuscany in the foreboding year of 1939 under Fascist premier Mussolini. Over in Germany, Hitler's trigger finger is starting to get itchy, but for the first half of the film the machinations of world politics are only a backdrop to the main event – Guido's comic attempts to woo his beloved, a schoolteacher named Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), away from her stuffed-shirt fiance Rodolfo (Amerigo Fontani).

Benigni's pratfalls, the stock, commedia dell'arte characters, the flower pot falling from a second-story window, will all be familiar from his earlier work. Even the gradually increasing touches of political satire are nothing new, evoking Chaplin's "The Great Dictator": Guido's frantic attempts to wave pedestrians away from an automobile with malfunctioning brakes are mistaken for a stiff-armed salute; a shopkeeper's doltish twin sons are named Benito and Adolph; in an attempt to impress Dora, Guido impersonates a school inspector, giving the students an impromptu lesson on what he calls the "master race" by stripping his scrawny, plucked-chicken body down to baggy skivvies.

Where "Life Is Beautiful" turns into something rare and extraordinary is not until midway through the film.

It is now a few years later. Guido, who owns a small bookstore, and Dora have married and have a young son, Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini). There is a goose-stepping Nazi presence now in their Italian town, and signs have begun to appear in shop windows: "No Dogs or Jews Allowed." Guido, who we learn is Jewish himself, jokes to a perplexed Giosue that he might put up his own sign: "No Spiders or Visigoths."

Suddenly, the film shifts gears as the Orefices are arrested and sent to a concentration camp – even Dora, who is not Jewish, voluntarily agrees to follow her husband and child. Without warning, "Life Is Beautiful" morphs into a very different and more sober film as the comedy moves shockingly but surprisingly effortlessly into the world of the death camps, even as the transport train carrying Guido, Dora and Giosue is shown gliding into the darkened camp yard in a cloud of smoke.

It's a risky tonal transition, allowing Guido to continue to crack wise about the atrocities of the Holocaust as he struggles to shield his son from its harsh realities, but Benigni handles it deftly. How he accomplishes this abrupt miracle is by shifting the audience for his jokes about prison life from us to Giosue, making the camp and its officers look foolish not to make us laugh but to spare a loved one from trauma. The poignancy of a father's desperation to paint life's horrors as a game makes every gag sting, like laughter's salty tears flowing into an open wound.

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, "Life Is Beautiful" has already generated some controversy among those who see it as making light of tragedy, but what its detractors fail to realize is that its humor does not trivialize the unspeakable but rather exalts parental sacrifice.

In one bold stride, Benigni has set himself apart from the rank and file of funnymen, joining the elite class of clowns who know that humor and heartbreak are only a howl of pain apart.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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