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Friday, April 16, 1999

Laughter's light in days of darkness


Here are two more additions to the Things You Thought You'd Never See department: 1) a short, balding Italian actor in a foreign language film winning an Oscar for Best Actor. 2) a comedy about the Holocaust.

Well, it's the end of the millennium, and these things happen. The aforementioned nebbish is Italian comedian Roberto Benigni, most familiar to audiences abroad from the Jim Jarmusch films "Down by Law" and "Night on Earth," and his new film is "Life Is Beautiful (La vita e bella)," which also picked up Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Academy Awards.

Benigni is obviously dealing with a hot potato here, but, judging from the near-universal praise his film has received, he seems to handled it successfully. As the film's title suggests, "Life Is Beautiful" seeks to be a life-affirming experience showing how humor, love and family can survive even the worst. While Benigni takes some liberties with his depiction of Auschwitz (there's a bit too much of "Hogan's Heroes" in his antics), the moving tragicomedy he has fashioned contains enough essential truths to be forgiven the details.

Set in 1939 in Italy under the Mussolini regime, "Life Is Beautiful" follows happy-go-lucky Guido (Benigni) as he drives to the town of Arezzo, where Guido's uncle will help him open his own bookshop. Benigni starts the film with a bang, a wonderful comic sequence in which the brakes fail on his car, and he careens into town ahead of Il Duce himself.

Once in town, Guido swiftly falls in love with a fetching schoolteacher named Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni's real-life wife), and sets out to woo her affections away from her fiance, Rodolfo (Amerigo Fontani), a humorless fascist officiary.

Benigni displays a loose, Chaplinesque physicality, falling off bikes, tipping flower pots off window sills, and tripping down the street with an improvised umbrella. His knack for slapstick mixed with tugs at the heart strings is also pure Chaplin. One can also spot traces of the antifascist satire that Chaplin employed in "The Great Dictator," while much of the second hour of the film clearly echoes "The Kid."

Guido and Dora's romance blossoms, with some slapstick worthy of the Marx Bros. gracing the scene in which Guido spirits Dora away from her engagement party at a posh hotel. But underneath the laughs and levity is the everpresent specter of fascism.

This comes to the forefront when the film cuts ahead several years: Guido and Dora are married, with an adorable son named Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini). Life is sweet, but little Giosue is asking questions, like why a shop's sign says "No dogs or Jews."

Jewish Guido laughs it off, telling his son that it's nonsense, that he knows another guy who has a sign that says "No Chinese or Kangaroos." But the laughs stop when the two are sent off to Auschwitz by the Nazis. Gentile Dora bravely boards the same train to share her family's fate.

Once in the camp, Guido attempts to protect his son's innocence, shielding him from the horrors. To do so, Guido tells Giosue that the concentration camp is a kind of rough outward bound game, and that he can only go home when he's amassed enough "points," which he gets by toughing it out and not crying when he's hungry or missing his mother. The humor arises from the "explanations" Benigni desperately makes up every time the situation worsens.

Central to the film's theme is a seemingly minor joke that comes early on, in which Guido, unable to sleep, is told by his friend to follow the advice of (German) philosopher Schopenhauer, who claimed that personal will can shape reality. "If you want to fall asleep, you just have to say 'sleep,' and you will," says his friend, which is followed by much comic mugging by Benigni.

But this idea shapes the film's second half. Schopenhauer's ideas were appropriated in a quasimystical way by the Nazis, particularly Hitler. Benigni uses Guido as a foil to the Nazis' nihilism, positing that the will of one small but decent man can shut out even Auschwitz. "If you want to remain cheery in Auschwitz, you will" is the film's riposte. (Less charitably, one could say that the motor-mouthed Benigni proposes that if you never shut up, your constant flow of words can shut out reality.) The real lesson of Auschwitz is the opposite of Benigni's: There are experiences so evil, so horrific, so degrading, that no humor can exist and that all human emotion can be crushed.

Still, one can understand the essential human need, when faced with this horror, to try and prove the opposite. Benigni's heart is in the right place, and "Life Is Beautiful," while a fiction, is probably a necessary one. And as an example of will power shaping reality, look no further than Benigni himself, who wrote, directed and starred in this dark horse, and rode it all the way to the Oscars.

"Life Is Beautiful" is playing at Cine Switch Ginza and other theaters.


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