A comic film's acid test Benigni's 'Life Is Beautiful,' a humorous love story set amid the Holocaust, draws laughter, then a telling silence.

July 26, 1998|By Jessica Lazar and Ann LoLordo | Jessica Lazar and Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - During the Israeli premiere of his movie, "La Vita e Bella" ("Life Is Beautiful"), Italian director Roberto Benigni scanned the darkened theater, watching the faces around him.

His film, a comic love story set against the horror of a Nazi concentration camp, received a standing ovation at the prestigious Cannes Festival earlier this year. But here, in a country that rose out of the ashes of the Holocaust with 350,000 survivors among its nearly 6 million citizens, Benigni worried about the reception his film would receive.

As the movie's Chaplinesque protagonist, Guido, careened down a hill in a car with no brakes, the audience laughed. When Guido (played by Benigni) schemed in scene after scene to win his love's hand, the audience laughed.

And when the train carrying Guido, his wife and small son entered Auschwitz, Benigni peered through the dark at those around him. He heard almost nothing.

"I was afraid, of course, to show my movie in Israel," Benigni explained during a post-screening briefing held at the 15th annual Jerusalem Film Festival, which ended last weekend. "During the first part of the film, they laughed a lot, and in the second part, the silence had a different quality. If silence can have a quality, which I think it can, this one did, and I felt the silence for the first time and understood it."

At one point early in the movie, Guido says, "Silence is the most powerful cry."

Billed as a "fable," "La Vita e Bella" is set in fascist Italy in 1939. It is the story of a waiter-turned bookseller who woos a local schoolteacher and then finds himself and his young family shipped off to a concentration camp. In a wild ploy to shield his 5-year-old son, Joshua, from the horror awaiting them, Guido convinces the boy that the Nazi camp is an intricate game. The winner, he says, takes home his very own tank.

The film won the second-place Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, where viewers stood and applauded Benigni for 20 minutes. The film was well-received in Italy. But some criticism there prompted Jerusalem festival organizers to screen the movie before bringing it to Israel.

"We were confident it would be well-received here," said festival director, Leah Van Leer. "I don't see how anyone could think otherwise after they've seen how sensitive a film it is. I don't remember anything like [the reaction of the crowd] for years. Everybody was moved. It was quite extraordinary."

Nachman Ingbar, film critic for the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot, wrote in his next-day review that "The film's subject matter is based on one of the most difficult chapters in our people's history, and yet Benigni succeeds in extracting from it moments of magic and deep faith in the human spirit."

Moviegoers seemed almost unanimously touched by "Life is Beautiful." Tsvia Eisennmann, a public-relations associate, came out of the theater on the second night of the film's Jerusalem debut feeling "a bit surprised."

"You find yourself laughing and laughing, and then you stop and realize what you're laughing at," she said.

Other viewers saw the film's comedic approach to the Holocaust as a legitimate way to broach philosophical questions about life and death.

"I'm still digesting it," said Ruthie Ebenstein, a Hebrew University graduate student of Holocaust history after a performance. "Laughter was Guido's key to survival. His slapstick attitude and his arrogance were both his greatest strength and his greatest flaw - laughter at the Holocaust at its highest and lowest point.

"It's completely ludicrous to get on the PA system in a death camp and scream in Italian that you love your wife. It's ludicrous, but it was a life-saving technique. That was how he saved his child, by imparting laughter as a life-saving technique."

One viewer, however, challenged Benigni's depiction of the time as "revisionist history." Another said the film "lacked horror" - a characterization the director rejected.

"There is a lot of horror but not directly seen," said Benigni, a non-Jew and one of Italy's foremost comics. "When my uncle goes to the gas chamber, there's just a look from the Nazi woman [guard] - an empty look. This is for me the craziness. I would never in my life show the violence. ... It's not my style. I like to evoke."

A wiry man with wild dark hair and black, Kissinger-style glasses, Benigni, 46, discussed his film during the festival, at a briefing at Jerusalem's premier movie house, the Cinematheque. He is known outside Italy for his madcap performances in Jim Jarmusch's "Down by Law" (1986) and "Night on Earth" (1991).

Benigni said he patterned the film's character, Guido, after his own father, who spent time in a work camp during World War II. The hardships of a work camp cannot be compared to the devastation of a concentration camp, Benigni said.

But his father's almost obsessive need to talk about his experience was not unlike that of a concentration camp survivor.

"When my father told me and my three sisters about his experiences, it came out exactly like the character of Guido," said Benigni. "Maybe because he was afraid to tell us, so he told it in a funny way. He could not ignore the necessity to tell the story, and it continues until today."

Praise from viewers and an honorary medal from Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert were more important to Benigni than an Oscar could have been, the director said.

"This is my contribution to the Holocaust. ... The tragedy of the Holocaust belongs to everybody."

The film, distributed by Miramax, is scheduled to open in the United States in the fall.

Pub Date: 7/26/98

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