Desperately Seeking Oscar

The day the clown cried: Roberto Benigni in Life Is Beautiful

Life Is Beautiful
Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

Sure, laughter contains a measure of pain, and the pain can go far beyond banana peels. But can a pain that's still quite close, still present like an absent limb, be challenged by comedy? Depends on the kind of comedy. In Life Is Beautiful, a fable of foolery set in a concentration camp, actor/director Roberto Benigni has chosen the wrong kind of jokes to tell.

Benigni, with his big nose, rubber limbs, and heart on his sleeve, won big attention good and bad (prizes, boos) at the most recent Cannes festival. He's already a major star in Italy and a kind of cult figure in the U.S. (thanks to his part in Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law), and he has the status (and self-importance) to tackle a big issue, like the Holocaust, if he wants. Chaplin did it (The Great Dictator) and so did Jerry Lewis (in the unreleased but notorious The Day the Clown Cried). Evoking Chaplin or Keaton in his spontaneous physicality, Benigni is a talented enough performer that anything he does should deserve notice. But what he basically does is comedy, old-fashioned and with a bit of schmaltz.

Life Is Beautiful is a two-part comic invention with little detail and lots of well-practiced funny business. Benigni is Guido Orefice, a happy-go-lucky waiter-turned-bookshop-owner who finds life so bland that he improvises on it at every chance. Appearing in a town to find his uncle, then a job, and then a permit for his shop, he makes jokes and pranks as easily as breathing. Another man's hat is more stylish? Follow the comic "rule of three" and sneak away with it on the third and most outlandish try. Your own origins and business too prosaic? Invent nobility, feign privilege, and impersonate bureaucracy whenever possible.

I'm not going to fall into the rut of defining comedy, but certainly anarchy is part of the recipe. Yet comic anarchy set against fascist Italy, bombastic as Mussolini was, just doesn't seem like the best idea on earth. About an hour into this movie, it becomes clear that fascism is more than just stupid--it's also sadistic--and Benigni starts to lose his joke and thereby his touch. For no apparent reason beyond his own established cupidity, he shows up at his sweetheart's school, impersonating a government education official. Called upon to explain the state's new "race manifesto," Guido builds on pratfalls and some slips of the tongue, but doesn't make the policy or the obvious building repression any less scary. The fact that we've heard little about Jews by this point, especially that Guido is Jewish, makes this moment even more clumsy.

The second half of Life Is Beautiful is more daring but less impressive: Now married and with a son, Guido and family are tattooed and wearing striped pajamas. Eager to keep his son (about 4 or 5 years old) from the truth of the camp, and true to form, Guido makes up lie after lie--about how this is a prearranged vacation, and all the repression is a "contest" in which the winner (the most obedient person) wins a prize of a real tank! It's one thing to see a desperate father ad-lib like crazy to preserve his kid's innocence, but it's something else to see that child's innocence exploited just so the father can make more jokes. Guido's insistent cheer is more selfish showboating than it is loving improvisation.

There can be therapy in an aesthetic twist--Art Spiegelman made a comic book out of the Final Solution in Maus, and other movies have mocked parts of this terror (such as the Jack Benny and Mel Brooks versions of To Be or Not to Be). Most indelible, Lina Wertmuller found a few urgent reasons to laugh in her one masterwork, Seven Beauties (about a twisted erotic/sadistic relationship between a prisoner and his overweight female guard). But Benigni's problem is that by choosing silly fable he makes the target mushy. According to this movie, life as a persecuted Jew consisted of bad bunks, some anvil-lifting, and the curiously frequent disappearance of roommates.

Translation, or ironic misdirection, is what best turns anger into comedy. And there is no outraged caricature or genuine shock in Life Is Beautiful; in fact, the few details (talk of lampshades, bellowing guards) only serve to remind us that Benigni's material is more grim than Grimm. Stuck in his self-molded fable, he falls back on plot coincidence with embarrassing regularity. His laughs don't wish away the horrors, even though they should.

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