Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful grossed $38 million in Italy, becoming one of the most successful films in Italian cinema. It won three Oscars and broke box-office records in the United States, too. The film appeared when Italy was embarked upon an uncomfortable re-evaluation of its wartime past, including the fate of the 7,500 Jews deported to the Nazi death camps, and at a time of wider fin-de-siècle anxiety over how the Holocaust will be remembered. However, Life is Beautiful hardly challenges the benign reading of Italian fascism and raises troubling questions about representations of the Holocaust.
It begins in 1939 with the arrival in Arezzo of two lads, Guido and Ferruccio. Guido, a Jew, is going to train as a waiter with his uncle. They arrive just as some thugs are roughing up the uncle, but the older man dismisses his assailants as merely "barbarians" and advises passivity:
"silence is the loudest cry".
Later, uncle's horse is painted green and the words " Achtung cavallo ebreo " scrawled on its side. When uncle warns Guido that he will soon become a target Guido quips: "The worst they can do is strip me, paint me yellow, and write, 'Attention Jewish waiter!'" Of course, there was a lot worse that "they" could do and it is not clear if Guido's nonchalance is intended as a parody of anti-Semitism or a sign of myopia. It should be noted, though, that the equine graffiti is in mixed German-Italian, as if to suggest that the racism is foreign in nature.
By avoiding explicit scenes of violence in Italy and projecting anti-Semitism on to the Germans, Benigni makes it easier for Italians to evade their own culpability for the persecution of the Italian Jews. True, Mussolini's Fascist creed was not dogmatically anti-Semitic. Italian occupation troops in France and the Balkans harboured Jewish refugees and no Jews were deported from Italy until the German take-over in autumn 1943.
However, the rounds-ups and massacres that marred Italy's record thereafter cannot be attributed solely to the occupiers. From its inception racism was latent in Fascism. Mussolini brought in Nuremberg-style race laws against the Jews in 1938, to applause from leading Fascists like Roberto Farinacci, who were genuine racial anti-Semites. Over 20,000 Italians were enrolled in the fanatical Black Brigades that roamed the northern Italian puppet state over which Mussolini presided. Italians arrested up to 2,000 Jews, Italian citizens, for deportation to Auschwitz.
Yet Benigni consistently belittles Italian anti-Semitism. In one hilarious scene Guido sends up propaganda proclaiming the superiority of the Italian "race" by jokingly parading his physical virtues and exclaiming: "This is an Italian belly button. It's part of our race." Yes, racial science was absurd - but it was also lethal.
Somehow Guido escapes retribution and even manages to steal the fiancee of a local fascist boss with impunity. They have a son Giosue - Joshua. By this time Arezzo is occupied by Germans and shops bear notices saying "No Jews Or Dogs Allowed". Giuido manages to laugh this off for his son's benefit, but on the boy's sixth birthday they are seized for deportation.
Germans handle the embarkation. The script directions indicated the presence of "Fascist soldiers" and an Italian officer, but the viewer needs sharp eyes to pick them out. Once Guido reaches the concentration camp the Italian context vanishes. Significantly, Benigni did not choose the camps at Fossoli or Trieste. Instead, the theme of the film becomes more universal, turning to human resilience in the konzentrationslager .
Guido arrives with his son. Joshua's mother, Dora, who is not Jewish, is also there having insisted on joining the transport. Guido tries desperately to maintain contact with his beloved wife and protect his son. He convinces the boy that the camp is part of an elaborate game in which he will score points by remaining hidden and not complaining about hunger or discomfort. Thanks to his fantastic ingenuity, but at the cost of his own life, Guido saves Joshua. After the Americans liberate the camp the boy is reunited with his mother.
The story is played out in a semi-realistic setting and Benigni bragged about his historical research. The prisoners are clad in typical camp garb. The entrance to the camp echos the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It has an "undressing room" and gas chamber. But if Benigni really wants his film to be judged according to realism, it is an abomination.
Children of six rarely survived the concentration camps and never survived the death camps, although such details are not allowed to disrupt Benigni's narrative of redemption. To deflect criticism he prefaces the film with a statement that it is "like a fable". And, indeed, it is a very Christian parable.
Guido is persecuted because he is a Jew, but the sources of anti-Semitism are located in racial science rather than Italian Catholicism. He marries a non-Jewish woman, so according to Jewish law their son is not Jewish. Benigni's "Holocaust" is perpetrated by Germans on a non-specific group of Italians that includes Jews, non-Jews and "half-Jews". The boy is named Joshua, which in its Greek form is Jesus. Little Jesus survives thanks to the sacrificial act of his father and is returned to the arms of his Madonna-like, non-Jewish mother. Not without reason is this the pope's favourite film, which he watched at a special screening accompanied by its director.
Life is Beautiful has some wonderfully comic moments, but as a representation of the Holocaust it is misleading and pernicious. The element of verisimilitude gives the film a spurious plausibility, yet love did not conquer in the camps and the human spirit rarely transcended the evil circumstances. The reality defies redemptive narratives. Benigni achieves his feel-good ending - with its Christian message that love, meekness and sacrifice will triumph over evil -only by falsifying history. The film does a disservice to Jews, Italians and the wider understanding of the Holocaust. The plaudits it earned only show the continuing reluctance to engage with the magnitude of Nazi inhumanity.
David Cesarani is professor of modern Jewish history, University of Southampton.
Life is Beautiful
Author - Roberto Benigni and Vincenzo Cerami
ISBN - 0 571 20034 6
Publisher - Faber
Price - £6.99
Pages - 162