by Solano Meier

"Life is Beautiful" ("La vita è bella") can be divided into two very different parts. The first, classic Italian comedy, full of funny barbs against fascism and racism, happens mostly in the Tuscan town of Arezzo, in 1939. Roberto Benigno, who wrote and directed the film, also played the main role, Guido: this Guido of Arezzo is Jewish; he works as a waiter; he courts Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigno's wife in real life,) and ends up marrying her and having a child, Giosué (Giorgio Cantarini.) About the excellence of the acting and the funniness of the action in this first part there seems to be consensus, but opinions are bitterly divided when it comes to the second part. We are now in 1944; Guido, Giosué and the old uncle (Giustino Durano) are deported to Germany; Dora, who is not Jewish, insists in sharing their destiny. The rest takes place in a concentration camp. It looks like Auschwitz, but can't be since in the end it's liberated by the Americans. Anyway, the intention here is not realistic; this "Auschwitz" is merely a backdrop for the continuation of the comedy: the Uncle is gassed, the place is hellish, but Guido manages to maintain his four-year old son under the illusion that it's all a game, that in the end, if he wins, he'll get a war tank as a prize. And in the end, indeed, he does: a real American tank whose driver takes Giosué up into the turret and puts a cask on his head. The last shot (soon after Guido has been shot by the Nazis) is of Giosué held by his mother, little arms raised, shouting, "Abbiamo vinto!" ("We won!").

"Triumph of the spirit," "bittersweet," "human resilience in the face of..." -- let us set those and similar clichés aside and ask the important questions: Is comedy a proper way to represent the sacred? Or are such representations sacrilegious? Is the sacred denied by laughter and dissolved or trivialized by smiles? Since this movie has won three Academy awards and a Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, plus favorable reviews in the New York Times and other newspapers, clearly there are many who would answer those questions respectively Yes, No, No. Yet many other reviewers loathed the movie. Either they took it for granted, without any serious attempt at justification, that comedy and the Holocaust cannot be mixed, or they accused Benigni of softening the horror, as if it went without saying that art must stay within the strict limits of historical truth. The New Yorker film critic David Denby, one of the loathers, argued only that:

"Benigni's ironic counter-reality undermines this movie, not the Nazis, who were beyond ridicule for the same reason that they were beyond rationality. Totalitarianism makes the fantastic literal -- that is its demonic appeal."

Denby's argument is silly. How can "the same reason" (whatever it may be) cause something to lie beyond rationality and beyond ridicule? It would seem that the contrary is true: if something appears to us as being beyond rationality, it should be rather easy to make fun of it -- unless that something happens to be sacred to us. It is of course not the Nazis but the Holocaust that's sacred to us. As for the Nazis, Chaplin ridiculed them quite effectively in "The Great Dictator," and Benigni, here, cruelly ridicules all Germans, particularly in what they used to hold most dear: their poets and thinkers, their Kultur, their Bildung. In the first part of the movie there is a Doctor Lessing (Horst Buchholz) who loves riddles (like the one from the Sphinx, whose answer is, Man); Guido helps him solve them, they grow fond of each other; as they part, Lessing praises Guido as a genius, and Guido praises the German as a most learned man. In the second part, Lessing is the SS doctor at the camp; when he and Guido recognize each other during a "medical" round, the doctor expresses an urgent wish for private communication. We expect that Lessing will help Guido somehow, but when, in a magnificently played scene, they finally have a chance to talk and Guido, choking with hope, tells that Dora, his wife, is also at the camp, the doctor doesn't even register; all he wants, all he begs from the astonished prisoner is help to solve one more riddle having to do with ducks that go, "Quack, quack, quack," which obsesses him and robs him of his sleep. Since the illustrious Gotthold E. Lessing, Enlightment playwright and critic, admirer of Spinoza and friend of Moses Mendelssohn, is known as one of Germany's most liberal and tolerant thinkers, Benigni's sting carries an extra dose of poison. Stronger, I'd say, than Spielberg's and his picture-perfect villains.

No, the Nazis are not beyond ridicule, and as for Denby's other contention, that the "demonic appeal" of totalitarianism resides in that it "makes the fantastic literal," I wonder if he would apply the word "demonic" to technology, by far the most important agency transforming fantastic into literal before our nose. The question, again, is whether comedy is a legitimate approach to the sacred -- in the present case, the Holocaust. Old question, no doubt, and the answer may be culture bound. But I should clarify: in saying "sacred" I don't imply any moral valuation, either good or evil; I mean, roughly, what the German scholar Rudolf Otto meant in his 1917 book, Das Heilige: a presence that's tremendous and overpowering, awful yet fascinating, weird in the undebased sense of that word, and not graspable by concepts, so beyond reason. The sacred is dangerous and compels reverence. Today, our Judeo-Christian collective memory of the Holocaust carries a stronger sacral charge than the Binding of Isaac or the Passion of Christ, whence the impassioned disagreements as to which genres (if any) may legitimately represent it. Spielberg's melodrama and Wertmuller's film noir are not without their loathers; the least objectionable is the clinically documentary, seemingly fable-free treatment by Lanzmann. Apparently it is the fable, the mythos, that's felt by some to be blasphemous or indelicate: they'd prefer to keep the sacred demythified and scientific.

Well then, what about "Life is Beautiful": does it work? Much as I enjoyed the first part of the movie, I was often uncomfortable during the second half, especially at the beginning: as Guido, Giosué and the old Uncle were carted north, I kept fidgeting in my seat, closing my eyes and muttering, "No more; it ought to end right now." My discomfort before the novel might have been natural; in any case, after scenes like the one with Lessing and his quacks were added to my repertoire of indelible memories, I must say that, somehow or other, the film works.

* * *

Many events leave sacred scars among the nations, but the most sacred are those revealing what men can inflict on men. And never more profound than when the victims are not brought from afar, but are familiar to the sacrificers, having lived in their midst. It's remarkable that we can remember no historical time as fertile in sacred horrors as our own; even though the European Holocaust is unarguably pre-eminent, Latin America has had its fill, and Argentina, in particular, went through her most terrible years between 1975 and 1982. The film "Tango," a joint Argentine-Spanish production directed by Carlos Saura, deals, if only episodically and spasmodically, with those events.

"Tango" has another feature in common with "Life is Beautiful": it consists of two easily differentiable aspects. The eponymous music and dance, taking up roughly half the time, is for export: few Argentines will pay to see or hear what they can get, in more vivid detail, at the better tango spots in Buenos Aires. For internal consumption there's a plot, minimal and trite, but cannily devised so as to appeal to the snobbism of the local public. The central character is a movie director, Mario (Miguel Angel Solá), who is making a movie; meanwhile he has a love life: one lover (Mia Maestro) leaves him and refuses to come back; then he takes up with a young and beautiful girl, Elena (Cecilia Narova;) until then she was going out with the mafioso (Juan Carlos Copes) who's financing Mario's movie. Those in the public who catch the similarities with Fellini's "8 1/2" are supposed to feel a little smart-alecky frisson of self-congratulation.

All of this would have no interest for this reviewer, except for the references to the years of torture and repression. An episode of Mario's movie is a dance representing soldiers rounding up prisoners and the torture of a woman; after a viewing of it, the mafioso and the other producers object that the public doesn't want to see depressing stuff, Argentines would rather forget. Mario is bravely adamant: he replies by quoting Borges. At one point he shows some of Goya's dark images. At another, he's lying in bed, having a post-coital talk with Elena, both worried about what the violent mafioso might inflict on them; Mario says that, having spent the worst years in Europe, he returned to find that all his friends had been murdered. Elena replies that they should forget the horror and concentrate on their love; Mario, however, insists that they should remember, for the sake of their identity. The torture dance, to tango music of course, is not moving; Mario never sounds authentic and never mouths anything but commonplaces; I didn't feel, however, that there was anything terribly wrong up to that point. Inept maybe, but not demeaning.

The turn comes when the mafioso finds out that Elena has left him; he entreats, he begs, then he threatens. When Elena refuses him with the same words Mario's first lover used at the beginning of the movie, we know something is wrong. Both women are actresses in Mario's movie; in the end, the violent mafioso declares that he's neither violent nor mafioso: he, too, has been playing a role. Ah, now smart Aleck understands the meaning of those mirrors all over the set: everything is a play of reflections, everything's a mirage. Or, as Mario himself says, "Siempre las mismas pavadas" (the same nonsense, over and over again.) All along, the makers of this movie knew that the plot was ridiculously trite, merely a flimsy excuse for a tango dance spectacle for export; now we see they were being self-reflectively ironic. As smart Aleck will put it: "This film is post-modern, didn't you realize?"

The Argentine intelligentsia seems to go in a big way for this kind of thing, where signs are only meant as comments upon signs, their referents always postponed, the presence of those referents consistently denied, and truth ever pushed away from poor Tantalus. I guess this "post-modernism" tickles or flatters their intelligence, convinced of its own sharpness but unused or unable to bite on anything substantial. I wonder if Argentines realize what this film does to the memory of their horror, which cannot avoid being undercut, ironized, evaporated into a mirage along with all the rest.

This brings me to the moral of this fable, which is that, each in its own way, all arts and all genres can -- conceivably -- represent the sacred, present it to our reverence. Comedy, farce, dance, te-deum or tango, even idyll and pastoral -- all of them, except for the "post-modern" exercise. This is not because "Tango" is a failure; the reason is essential. The essence of "post-modernism" is to deny the possibility of presence; the essence of the experience of the sacred is to impress, to force upon us the reality of presence. There are those who maintain we would be better off without it, but that's another story.


To Of(f)course  home page                     To Index of this issue.