Review: Life is Beautiful
They both may include a somewhat similar father-son relationship, yet they still Night, a tragic memoir of Eliezer Wiesel, and Life is Beautiful. Both Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful (), a film about a father's determination to protect his four-year-old son, Giosuè, in a but it is one in which the essential loving and trusting relationship to the father remains the same. . just as likely that Guido might have survived if he hadn't searched for Dora that final night. Life is Beautiful turned the Holocaust into a sentimental fable. . On the night of her engagement party, she crawls under the table to escape with Guido on The Tramp in the father-son relationship (Giorgino Cantarini is marvelous as the son, .
The child who becomes the grown-up narrator of the film may possess a deeper understanding of how his father protected him, but it is one in which the essential loving and trusting relationship to the father remains the same. As in a children's folktale, life is beautiful.
This is the sacrifice my father made for me. As in a fairy tale, Dora, the heroine of Life is Beautiful, lies in bed like Sleeping Beauty, longing to be rescued by her hero, the man who introduces himself as Prince Guido, and whose last name, Orefice, means goldsmith.
Of course, parody demands that this prince does not climb up the tower, but meets his principessa when she falls out of a barn silo into his arms. Nevertheless, Guido clearly does rescue Dora from the miseries of a wealthy marriage, as they ride away from the engagement banquet on the horse appropriately named Robin Hood. What Yolen accomplishes through the contrast produced by her concluding "Author's Note," Benigni achieves through the visualizing of absence, what the screen does and does not show us.
The tension of the film lies in its playing between two registers that always threaten to collapse: Guido mocks his son's gullibility; what kind of game is that? Who can imagine burning people in ovens? But not even Guido, the one who can answer nearly all of the Nazi doctor's riddles including one about Snow Whitecan answer the riddle of Nazi categories, the riddle whose answer we know as the Final Solution.
Cautioned by his uncle to heed the warning when Robin Hood is painted with anti-Semitic symbols, Guido jokes that he didn't even know that the horse was Jewish.
Like many Italian Jews, Guido is unwilling to imagine himself as vulnerable, and jokes that the worst the Nazis can do is paint him yellow and white. The riddle describes something that looks and acts like a duck.
Fathers and Sons: A Remarkable Relationship - M. Russell Ballard
If it looks like a duck, maybe it is a duck, but if the riddle's answer is Guido, then the doctor's loyalty to a Nazi ideology that sees Jews as inhuman vermin in need of extermination, prevents him from recognizing the man in front of him. For if many riddles are based on faulty categories,  the Nazi desire for a Final Solution demonstrates not only the horrific consequences of riddles based on faulty categories, but also how genocide can be regarded as merely the solution to a challenging riddle.
Yet the film has little interest in philosophical analysis. Most poignant is the contrast between the child's final view of his father as Guido is marched to execution: Yet it is worth observing both the abruptness of the film's happy ending and its dependence on an adult voice that is remarkably faithful to the presumed perspective of childhood.
For if the fable is true, and the father saved his life, how does a child live with that knowledge? What then is the sacrifice: Guido's silence about the genocidal purpose of the camps, or Guido's death? The logic that the father sacrificed himself in order that his son might live does not fit the camp universe where if any logic applies, it is the logic of death by which any Jews saved for work have only been given a temporary reprieve.
And any logic, let alone the patterns of fairy-tale justice and the good luck of being the special child of the prince and princess, always comes up against the role of accident: It cannot afford to proceed further without confuting its own logic. A "simple story," Life is Beautiful demonstrates that in speaking of the Holocaust it is not just children who long for consolatory fairy tales.
Yet the film also illustrates how questions of intended audience in Holocaust representation often blur the distinction we draw between child and adult. For the controversy over the appropriateness of telling a fable about the Holocaust seems directly consequent to a binary view of Holocaust representation in which adult representation of the Holocaust, precisely because it is adult, is to be judged only in terms of a kind of full meaning realistic representation.
In contrast, we expect Holocaust representation in children's literature to work with limits, by employing narrative structures that protect the child reader even as the narrative instructs that reader about the Holocaust and attempts to make meaning of what is too easily dismissed as incomprehensible.
While some might object that these very limits make the idea of any children's literature on the Holocaust itself incomprehensible and trivial, children's books may simply be more honest about their limitations than adult works.
For the objection to limits of representation in children's books implies that there may be another kind of literature, i. Such belief in an ideal literature on the Holocaust necessitates setting aside general theoretical objections to the ability of any language to mirror any reality, objections that are further complicated by the oft-cited survivor perspective that whoever was not there cannot know what it was like, that there may well be words to represent this reality but only survivors speaking to other survivors can possess and understand them.
And this survivor perspective has been taken even further, by Primo Levi, when he says that those who survived by virtue of their survival, are themselves an exception and cannot tell the stories of the majority who did not survive.
Like a Fable, Not a Pretty Picture: Holocaust Representation in Robert Benigni and Anita Lobel
What is even more apparent is that if Life is Beautiful is ultimately and paradoxically an adult film that is dependent upon the techniques of children's literature, it is also a film whose foregrounding of Guido's need to protect the child distracts us from its equally urgent need to protect the adult viewer who wants to believe not only that the power of parental love will persist even in the death camps,  but more wistfully, that the child survivor recognizes and remains ever grateful to the memory of that love.
Those who object to the film's comic approach are understandably reluctant to address this as central to the film's comic vision, and I do not wish to generalize that all child survivors are not eternally grateful.
Certainly memoirs by children whose parents were murdered are intensely loyal, guilt-ridden at any lapse in that loyalty, as in Night when Elie Wiesel confesses his relief at his father's death. But if the parents survive, the postwar relationship described in the memoirs is often far more troubled, and particularly so if the child survivor was very young.
Listen to the collapse of this belief in No Pretty Pictures as Lobel recalls her feelings regarding her uncle and aunt the night in January when she and her young brother arrive in "yet another concentration camp": First they had pretended to take care of us.
And then they had lied. They had tried to trick us. The failures of the grown-ups around us had landed us in this place.
Lobel's "Epilogue" even considers, then dismisses, the question of how her lack of trust may have contributed to her uncle and aunt's death. Initially "walking in a halo of light," she feels that a miracle has occurred, a miracle she attributes to her wearing of the "holy medals" that her Catholic nanny had given her and that she has managed to retain despite the stripping and shaving that she has been subject to.
Yet she also feels shame at being photographed as she steps off the ferry in Sweden wearing the "same layers of rags" that she wore in the camp. Sweden represents a new world; the rags she wears belong to a different world. As a memoirist, Lobel places this photograph of arrival in Sweden on the cover of her book, as if writing the memoir demands confronting that shame, and all the other moments of bodily humiliation that are part of her experience. A reluctant memoirist, Lobel views with suspicion the current fashion for celebrating Holocaust survivors: This attempt may be Lobel's adult gesture countering her childhood memory of refusing any recognition to a "large, shapeless woman" thrown in the truck when they are transported.
When her brother guesses that the woman is their grandmother, Lobel is terrified that he is right: I didn't want us to be connected to a Jewish relative. Lobel is outraged when her mother wants immediately to cut her hair as though oblivious to how the trauma of having her head shaved would produce a child unwilling to ever cut her hair again. The memoir structurally enacts Lobel's sense of separation: If she concludes that hers is a happy story, happiness exists only through her ability to block out a "time from which I have very few pretty pictures to remember.
For much of her career, the biographical notes on the dust jackets of her books are silent about her Holocaust childhood. Lobel is presented as a decorative artist, capable of pretty pictures, but not much else; typical are the notes to her illustrations of Three Rolls and One Doughnut: Fables from Russia Retold by Mirra Ginsburg: Lobel has always been interested in the decorative arts.
She embroiders clothes whenever she can and designs needlepoint tapestries. Despite the way the title, No Pretty Pictures, draws a line between Lobel's later life as an American illustrator and her Polish childhood, the line is not only less solid than Lobel claims, but is itself a marker of the survival strategies she found necessary.
What is the relationship, for example, between Niania, Lobel's Polish nanny to whose memory Lobel dedicates her memoir, and the many babushka-wearing women who populate her art?
The memoirist concludes that Niania was her "demented angel," undoubtedly anti-Semitic yet just as clearly devoted, loving, and determined to protect her two charges.
Comparison and contrast between Night by Elie Wiesel and Life is beautiful by Robert Benigini.
Lobel begins her memoir with the memory of her five-year-old self watching the arrival of the German soldiers in September ; holding tightly to her nanny's hands, she records how Niania categorizes and identifies the world for her, first saying, "'Niemcy, Niemcy' 'Germans, Germans' " and then just as contemptuously muttering whenever she sees the neighbor Hasid "Jews! Gradually Lobel too absorbs Niania's attitudes and sees herself as more Catholic than Jewish.
She longs for blond hair, worries that her dark skin betrays her, and shuns association with other Jews. In the Polish village where they first hide, Lobel feels threatened when her own mother comes to visit, yet the Polish countryside is no paradise: Such ambiguous memories of Poland contest the biographical notes in which Lobel admits to only positive images, e. Three picture books that span her career, Sven's BridgePotatoes, Potatoesand Away from Homefurther indicate not only that Lobel's separation of her Holocaust childhood from her adult art is less tidy than the memoir claims, but that Lobel's need to separate hints at a more complex narrative about child survivors than the one celebrated by the neat happy ending of Benigni's film.
Initially the illustrations seem to exist in isolation from Lobel's wartime memories, as though Lobel with her pictures were returning the beauty that was taken away from her by creating a separate utopian world. This is a relationship of replacement, covering over, like the incident she records in the memoir when the Nazi visit to her parents' apartment is marked by the theft of a beautiful rug.
When Lobel later sees her mother crying over the transport of her parents and sister, the first time that she ever sees an adult so vulnerable, she recalls her mother standing "in the middle of the empty spot where the kilim rug had been" No Pretty Pictures.
What is covered over in Lobel's first picture book, Sven's Bridge, what cannot be said inis the memory of that humiliation. The biographical notes to Sven's Bridge carefully avoid any reference to the Holocaust and we read only that "Anita Lobel was born in Krakow, Poland, where she spent much of her early childhood. It is not simply a matter of colors. In order to cross the bridge, Lobel forced herself to remember a painting that hung over her bed before the war of a "beautiful angel.
Better a utopia in which Sven, the gatekeeper, protects the wooden bridge and all those who need to cross it; in place of Niania with her string bag to fool onlookers into thinking that she is a "lady. In Sven's Bridge, bridges are safe places. Lying beside her mother, she notes her resemblance to the corpse of an old woman we had known in the country.
The dead woman had been laid out on a table in her cottage. Her nose, long and thin, reached far away from her face. And her feet were neatly pointing straight up. Mother's big nose and pointing feet looked just like that corpse. No Pretty Pictures Given the circumstances, it is not surprising that the child imagines the mother as a corpse, and it is easy to understand why, when Lobel later acknowledges the contribution of her wartime memories to her fable Potatoes, Potatoes, she gently belittles reviewers who take the book seriously Hopkins.
Although Lobel resists constructing herself as a child survivor, she nevertheless demonstrates the perspective of a survivor who knows too well the difference between fables and the grim historical reality of Holocaust survival where, as Primo Levi tells us, "it needs more than potatoes to give back strength to a man. Memoir writers rarely offer such clear lessons, and the dust jacket biography remains silent on her wartime experience. Yet in Potatoes, Potatoes, Lobel does draw on her memory of the mother as corpse.
The image of the dead mother becomes the comic turning point of the fable, for the two brothers who left home captivated by the attractive uniforms and swords of the opposing armies have become military leaders battling for the potatoes their mother has hidden behind her walls. When the two armies break through the walls and destroy everything, they discover what appears to be the dead body of the boys' mother, a body that Lobel draws as the image she will describe more than thirty years later in the memoir.
Niania also resembles the mother in Potatoes, Potatoes who learns the impossibility of building "a wall around everything she owned. Copyright Anita Lobel and used with her kind permission. Just before Lobel and her brother are captured by the Nazis in the chapel of the Benedictine convent, the two children disobey Niania by sneaking out of the convent and visiting a local carousel. Although having to cross a small bridge to get to the carousel reminds Lobel of the trauma of crossing the ghetto bridge, for a moment she is distracted from the constant anxiety of hiding, and is able to see what so rarely appears in her memoir, a pretty picture: In the soft layers of air the city looked so like a beautiful painting in the pink and gold of an almost evening sky.
From where we now were I could no longer see the bridge we had crossed. Away from Home is structured according to the dust jacket as "a whirlwind tour of some of the world's wonders," in which young boys visit "exotic places in alliterative fashion" Library of Congress publication data. The dust jacket assures the reader that in the book's pages she can "start with A and go anywhere [she] want[s]!
I have been an immigrant. I have been a tourist.
This is its central square. When "Craig crawl[s] in Cracow" and is caught by the stage lights, I cannot help but see a Jewish child caught by other, more terrifying searchlights, and even find myself worrying about the intentions of the two men holding the stage set. See page  The image is so haunted by my reading of the memoir that the stage itself starts to look as narrow as a bridge.
While it may be that Lobel can only incorporate the Holocaust into her pretty pictures by repressing her own memories and replacing them with the imagined heroic resistance of a partisan, I am struck by the contradiction between Lobel's attempt to allude to the Holocaust in a children's travel book, and her insistence in No Pretty Pictures of the stark contrast between two kinds of travel: Making of the Holocaust an alphabetical entry like any other in a child's tour of the world's wonders, Lobel attempts an aesthetics that is deeply disturbing, one that makes me question the impossible demands we make upon Holocaust representations for and about young children.
Americans certainly seem to be doing just that; the film has already broken the box office record for foreign language films. But Life is Beautiful has more than a few detractors. One critic dubbed it the "unbearable lightness of Benigni," and J. Hoberman called it a "Tour de Farce. Comparing it to his own documentary, Shoah, Lanzmann damned Spielberg for his escapist sentimentalization of the Holocaust.
Despite all of Begnini's charm, the detractors are right to worry that his comic spell in Life is Beautiful achieves its effect by distorting painful realities and inducing a kind of self-deception in people who ought to know better. The spell began to recede for me half-way through the film. There on the screen was the menacing locomotive that Spielberg used to such powerful effect in Schindler's List.
For those who know the history of the final solution, Spielberg had chosen a perfect image for Auschwitz. The Nazis located the death camp two and a half hours from Cracow and close to the intersection of train lines that cut across Europe.
At Auschwitz, a visitor can still see what is left of the personal effects of the Jews from all over Europe who were brought by trains to their mass destruction in its gas chambers. Spielberg's film seemed inspired by what I saw when I visited the site, and I sensed the truth of Auschwitz even in its sentimentality. By placing Spielberg's locomotive in his own make-believe Auschwitz, Benigni crossed a border beyond which my aesthetic sensibility could not reach.
Instead of being touched by the comic pathos I became increasingly aware of how contrived it all was. Most troubling is that Benigni uses the Holocaust as a cinematic device to provide the bitter background for his own sweet charm. He has been quite candid about this, explaining to interviewers that he wanted to put his comic persona into an extreme situation, and that for him the story of Life is Beautiful is meant to be a simple fable. So there will be no mistake, the audience hears a voice over at the beginning of the film that states this is a simple fable.
But the Holocaust was not a fable and making Life is Beautiful one leads to troubling kinds of self-deception. Hoberman, who raised this issue in Sight and Sound, quarrels with the moral of the story: What parent would not do the same for his child if he could? Imagine that Auschwitz is only a bad dream and that you could hold your child in your arms and make up a story with a happy ending to comfort him. Imagine your comforted child going back to sleep with a smile on his face.
If there are God-like moments for parents they are of this kind, when you can comfort a frightened child. But sometimes their fears are real and your stories are not. Now imagine that you and your child are actually in Auschwitz, and you die performing the same consoling miracle: But Auschwitz was not a bad dream; there are no religious consolations, and no happy endings. Stiff-necked conviction suggests that there is something amiss in the comments of those who, like the Pope and Mr.
Foxman, have given Life is Beautiful their imprimatur. But his reaction to Benigni's character, Guido Orefice, seem to stretch beyond their limits the historical doctrines of the faith over which he presides. The church has identified two candidates for sainthood who died at Auschwitz: An unconverted and unbaptized Jew poses major doctrinal hurdles.
Although there are respected Catholic theologians who concede that salvation may be possible outside the church, Jews, like Guido Orefice, cannot be promised that their souls will go to Heaven. And no matter how wide the ecumenical gates have opened the Vatican has not yet reserved a place next to God for a Jewish saint. The Pope has found saints where many of us lost God. For Foxman, the Holocaust is a "sacred subject," but he is concerned that the world is forgetting and "we must look for new ways to remind the world about what happened.
Foxman recognizes that the mass media are the crucial vehicle for reaching new generations. He appreciates that Schindler's List brought human sympathy for the Jewish victims to life in the minds of those new generations. But Foxman deceives himself and his readers when he argues that Benigni should be acceptable to Jews because, like Spielberg, he knows the history of the Holocaust and portrays it "honestly. People who do not know Holocaust history-and that is most of today's movie-goers-leave the theater with all kinds of misinformation: But in accomplishing this Benigni has transformed the Holocaust from an historical reality into a heart-warming Italian fable that will help Italy forget its own fascist brutalities.
I do not think Benigni was expecting to help the world remember, nor was he aiming at sainthood, but he did have artistic ambitions. His goal in making Life is Beautiful was to be taken more seriously as an artist.
That is why he put his comic persona into an "extreme situation. It was achieved most brilliantly by Benigni's idol, the sublime Charlie Chaplin. Benigni shared his idea about an extreme situation with writer Vincenzo Cerami and together some give most of the credit to Cerami they devised this fable.
Benigni is a balding, weak-chinned, rubber-faced clown, a physical comedian with enormous appeal on the screen. But he is more a talking Harpo Marx than a Chaplin. Chaplin had an epicene beauty and his iconic character was the "thing in itself," comedy and pathos in the same figure.
Benigni, like Harpo, is a funny-looking madcap fool with a hidden refinement. Benigni of course does not play the harp, but underneath the slapstick accident-prone clown lie the refined sensibilities of an intelligent man. This is Benigni's two-sided comic persona; his gentle foolery is the rare art form of a wise man who plays the clown and brings joy to life at no one else's expense.
It is the sweet innocence of his humor that makes this funny-looking man so beguiling. In Life is Beautiful, Benigni is a paisan from the Tuscany countryside who comes rolling down the mountains into the town of Arrezo to seek his fortune. True to his comic persona, he is a circus act careening around the hilly town on a bicycle.
He keeps bumping into the lovely elementary school teacher, Dora Nicholetta Braschi, his wife in real life. It takes only one collision for him to decide that this upper class woman will be his wife.
The odds are totally against him. So begins a fairy tale love story.
Guido finds work as a waiter in a hotel dining room under the patronage of his uncle, the Maitre d'. The year is and Dora is engaged to marry the local fascist stuffed shirt, but she has the discernment to realize that her Prince Charming is the little froggy-looking waiter who makes her laugh and calls her principesa princess.
On the night of her engagement party, she crawls under the table to escape with Guido on the white horse he has ridden into the hotel dining room. It is a Marx Brothers scene; indeed the first half of the movie belongs to that genre. But Guido's white horse is not entirely white. It has been painted by fascist hoodlums with anti-Semitic slogans aimed at his uncle, the Maitre d', who it turns out is Jewish. Benigni had given us no reason to think that Guido or his uncle were Jews, and never in this film does Guido express or declare his Jewish identity.
The audience has time to identify with him, and to see him as the lovable Italian everyman that is Roberto Benigni's comic persona.