comedy in the film "Life if Beautiful" (Roberto Benigni)
It may seem strange to discus comedy in a film which essentially deals with the most devastating atrocity of the Twentieth Century -- the Holocaust. The film is also based on the love, anxiety and suffering of a father for his child in the most deadly of circumstances. However the film is a comedy in the larger sense of the word. It is essentially a celebration of life and a shout of defiance against the forces of darkness and evil that would consume the wonder of life. Critics have praised the film but also raised concerns about its subject matter and its proximity to the sensitive issue of the holocaust. One description of the film is: " ... A truly powerful film that manages to entertain, educate, and inspire with its potent combination of humor, poignancy, and dignity."
The film has been received many accolades and awards, including three Oscars and has been a box-office success around the world. It has also however raised many issues and problems about films that integrate comedy and serious event such as the Holocaust'. The film remains a " deeply problematic contribution to the growing body of films about the Holocaust."
The films was written and directed by Italian comedian Roberto Benigni with photography by Tonino Delli Colli.
Summary and Structure.
The effect of the comedy in the film is partly dependent for its impact on the structure. The film is divided into two separate but interdependent halves. The first half is a deceptively simple and light, sometimes slapstick, comedy essentially about romance Guido, the main character, is a jovial and funny man in fascist Italy in 1939. He falls in love with Dora, a beautiful schoolteacher. The two lovers continue meeting in odd places. Although Dora is about to marry another man., a rather unpleasant civil servant, this does not stop Guido from pursuing her. Guido succeeds in his suit and the two get married.
The scene shifts to five years later and to an Italy that is the middle of a war; Jewish-Italian citizens are being prosecuted by the Germans. Guido and his wide and child are taken into custody and removed to a concentration camp. The women are separated from the men upon arrival at the camp, and Guido is left to look after Giosue. The first half of the film is a mildly romantic comedy. But this is merely preparation for the second half which takes place within the concentration camp. The comedy is intensified by the danger and horror of the situation, as Guido tries everything in his power to protect his son from knowledge of the actual reality of where he is. The same buffoonery and slapstick humor prevails as did in the first half of the film, but the comedy is intensified by our knowledge of the seriousness of the situation.
Guido uses all his creative wiles and sense of fun to create an alternate reality for his son in order that he is not exposed to the horror around him. He creates the illusion that they are taking part in an elaborate game. The contrast between reality and the fiction that Guido invents for his son creates a sense of intense comedy which is sharpened by the imminent danger. Guido creates a game where points are awarded for staying hidden, or keeping silent -- and in this way entertains and diverts the attention of the young boy. This unending process of deception not only stops the child form becoming aware of the horror of the camp, but also protects him.
They are contestants in a grand game, Guido tells the boy, one in which the prize is a real tank ... In order to win the game, Guido says, Giosue must hide from the German officers by spending the whole day on the top row of crowded bunk beds.
Maintaining the illusion in the face of increasing danger becomes more difficult as time goes on. Part of the humor is in watching the manic and sometimes ludicrous lengths that Guido goes to in order to keep up with the circumstances. It is also a tribute to the acting and directing that at no time does the comedy become macabre or pathetic. The sense of high farce and humor is maintained until the end.
Critics have stated that the overall success of the comedy is mainly attributable to the relationship between the easy and sentimental comedy of the first section and the contrasting circumstances of the second section.
On its own, the first half of "Life is Beautiful" is energetic, but not spectacular, as it plays out like a disjointed series of comic sketches with a heavy emphasis on oozing sentimentality. Benigni's antics as a harmless clown feel right at home in this mildly amusing sequence. However, when seen in the context of what happens later, this seemingly cloying first act creates the emotional bond between the audience and Guido's family, and also serves as a counterpoint to the horrors that await.
In the second half of the film Guido is no longer the " buffoon" and slapstick trickster of the first half. In the light of his circumstances and what he is attempting to achieve, he becomes a hero.
In glaring contrast to the first half of the film, Guido is no longer a buffoon upon his arrival at the concentration camp-- he becomes a heroic figure that does whatever he can in order to survive and protect his family. In Guido's case, he uses his sense of humor and his ability to weave elaborate fictions as weapons.
3. The use of comedy.
The comedy in the first half of the film has been described as follows: "Three parts Charles Chaplin to one part Buster Keaton, Benigni's guileless courtship fable is a latter-day screwball farce in the best sense.
But this form of comedy changes due to the contrasting circumstances of the second half of the film. In essence the type of comedy used in the film can be described as transcendental comedy, in that it transcends or goes beyond the circumstances and terrifying conditions of the concentration camp. While the type of comedy does not essentially change -- it is still hectic and slapstick humor- it does become more poignant and somehow deeper in relation to the situation that the main character finds himself in.
An important aspect of the comedy, which is evident in both the first and second halves of the film, lies in the disregard for authority. This is of course especially significant and sharper in the second half.
"We see from the beginning that Benigni does not hold authority in high regard. He ridicules these people repeatedly in the first half of the film."
Another form of comedy that Benigni uses is changing identity. In the first half of the film, for example, Guido is mistaken for the King of Italy, with obvious comic possibilities. The character is always playing roles and often does this simply by switching hats. The change of identity leads to many farcical situations. Often there is a hint of close social and political observation in the comic situations.
When the priest is to arrive from Rome, Benigni assumes his identity and winds up going to a local school where he puts down the idea of identity by race, as illustrates to the students the absurdity of Aryan superiority. Finally, when his son asks why a certain pastry shop does not allow Jews or dogs, Benigni tells his son that these classifications are completely random, and that there are stores in town that forbid entry to others (Chinese and kangaroos, Spaniards and horses etc.).
Another form of humor that is employed, particularly in the second half of the film, is the use of quick-witted and spontaneous invention and repartee -- often in precariously dangerous situations. We laugh almost with relief at his daring and narrow escapes. An example of this form of humor is Guido's quick translation of a German office's rules which he changes and adapts into a story for his son.
An important part of the intensity of the film lies in the close relationship between tension and humor. Often comedy is not far from fear. Even when Guido is playing the fool in the first section of the film, there is an undertone of imminent danger and disaster. This creates a feeling of tension that one "... can feel in the pit growing in your stomach even as you giggle. Proving himself an expert manipulator, Benigni is setting his audience up for a tumble into the abyss."
At times the comedy comes precariously close to tragedy but always veers away into good natured humor.
Some accuse the director and writer of making a mockery of the significance of the Holocaust. "Not surprisingly, Benigni has been accused of making a mockery of the Holocaust in 'Life is Beautiful'. "