'Life' balances horror, humor Review: Laughter in the face of the Holocaust? Somehow, Italian director Roberto Benigni makes it work, with hilarity, heartbreak and, ultimately, humanity.

October 30, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Much of the advance press surrounding Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful" centers on the question, "How do you make a comedy about the Holocaust?" Easy. You don't.

Instead, you make a deeply affecting drama about a man's fight for survival using the redemptive power of laughter and human values. "Life Is Beautiful" brings to vibrant life Ernest Hemingway's observation that courage is grace under pressure.

In an entrancing performance, Benigni portrays the bravest hero seen on screens recently.

Benigni plays Guido Orifice, a country naif whom we meet in 1939, when he moves in with his uncle in a small Tuscan city, there to open a bookstore. Sweet and impulsive, with a genius for whimsical improvisation, Guido keeps running into a comely schoolteacher named Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), whom he adoringly refers to as "La Principessa."

Against all obstacles -- including Dora's betrothed, a haughty Fascist bureaucrat who somehow always winds up with egg on his face -- Guido makes Dora his own. The two marry and produce a darling son named Giosue (the waifishly appealing Giorgio Cantarini), who inherits his father's cunning and charm.

The first hour of "Life Is Beautiful," which Benigni directed from a script he wrote with Vincenzo Cerami, is taken up with Guido and Dora's courtship, a sweet, slightly screwball affair that involves several pratfalls, some clever magic and even a rescue on a white horse.

The fact that the horse is painted green and covered with anti-Semitic graffiti suggests the bitter underpinnings of the comic antics in "Life Is Beautiful." When Benigni refers to the encroachment of Fascism in Italy, he does so gently, with perfectly aimed irony.

Guido's political strategy is subtle but clear. Whether he is unwittingly leading villagers in a Hitler salute or poking fun at Nazi eugenics with an improvised demonstration of his own scrawny version of Aryan superiority ("Look at this ear! A perfect Aryan ear! And bendable!"), he chooses not to out-argue Mussolini but simply to point out Fascism's inherent absurdity.

It's an effective modus operandi until the inevitable happens.

On Giosue's birthday -- during the 18-month-long German occupation of Italy -- Guido, Giosue and Guido's elderly uncle (Giustino Durano) are abducted and deported to a German concentration camp. A distraught Dora insists on joining them on the doomed train.

To protect his son from the terrible knowledge of what is about to befall them, Guido pretends that the entire trip is a birthday adventure he's been planning.

Once at the camp, where Guido and Giosue are greeted by a demoralized barracks of hollow-eyed men, Guido continues his desperate ruse, convincing the saucer-eyed Giosue that the camp is an elaborate game, the winner of which will receive a real-life tank. Guido tells Giosue that he will pick up points for hiding and being quiet, thereby ensuring his son's survival while he searches for ways to get his family out.

Benigni, whose portrayal runs an exhilarating course between winsome, pathetic, hilarious and heartbreaking, does an extraordinary job of modulating this story's shifting emotional tones.

In his hands, a slapstick front flip, a besotted lover's gaze, the obliquely terrifying aftermath of a child's ruined birthday party and the magical appearance of velvet umbrellas and red silk carpets are presented with equal care and, when needed, comic flair.

He brings similar dexterity to balancing the film's halves, infusing the painful sequences in the concentration camp with carefully calibrated, always poignant levity.

But it's in his transfixing performance as this story's center that Benigni fully realizes the heroic moral of "Life Is Beautiful," a movie that, like its title, stands as a powerful rebuke to the most powerful evidence to the contrary.

'Life Is Beautiful'

Starring Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini

Directed by Roberto Benigni

Released by Miramax Films

Rated PG-13 (Holocaust-related thematic elements)

Running time 116 minutes

Sun score ****

Pub Date: 10/30/98

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