20 Movies 20 Years Later

Turning A Tragedy Into A Farce Was A Controversial Move That Tested The Limits Of Dark Humor

"Life is Beautiful" turns 20 this year.

In the 1940 satire film The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin lambasts Hitler and Mussolini while also playing one of their Jewish victims. Although the poignant film was well received and is considered a classic, in his 1964 biography, Chaplin says he wouldn't have made it had he known the extent of the camp's atrocities.

Indie film favorite Roberto Benigni, like the rest of the world since World War II, knew, but made Life is Beautiful anyway. Released in 1997, Life is Beautiful is a controversial comedy based on the true story of Italian Holocaust survivor Rubino Romeo Salmoni (No. A15810). Ultimately, Benigni won an Academy Award for Best Actor, and the film won for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Dramatic Score. It also won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, among several other international prizes.


That the film managed such success the same year Titanic swept the Oscars, is impressive. Despite the raves, for many — including Steven Spielberg, who won an Oscar for Schindler's List — the Holocaust is still no laughing matter. He reportedly wanted to walk out but was convinced by his wife Kate Capshaw that the optics would be negative. Others went as far as calling it the worst film ever made. Given the presence of Holocaust denial even today, it's easy to understand these concerns 20 years after the film's release.

Farce — tragedy's echo — by nature ridicules the unimaginable. Benigni, who has been compared to Chaplin in appearance and sensibility, defends his brutal, absurdist work by saying, "This is my biggest manifestation of love by people, they hug me in their arms and tell me, 'Thank you, grazie Benigni,' crying, laughing." Benigni — whose own background included poverty, a priest savior, a flood, a fire, a magician, and a circus — was familiar with life's absurdities and joys.

The film itself is two stories in one: first, a star-crossed romance between Guido (Benigni), a Jewish-Italian waiter, and Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), a Fascist officer's fiancée, who wind up having a child together despite their seemingly diametrically opposed trajectories. Secondly, it's a chronicle of the family's struggle to survive the concentration camps. Guido, who had pretended to be an inspector in their village, convinces his son that the camps are all part of a game with a tank as a prize and no real consequences. In previous films that helped make Benigni a superstar in Italy — 1991's Johnny Stecchino and 1994's Il Mostro (The Monster) — he also played with mistaken identity, so this was not an unfamiliar or unsuccessful narrative device for him.

Benigni's audacity to play this exercise in denial as a strategy for survival and not as exploitative political propaganda, endeared him and the movie to audiences worldwide who prefer to remember Life is Beautiful as a romance about love's grace, imagination's transcendent power, and the human spirit's tenacity in the darkest of times. As Benigni says, "I discovered that in the lowest you can discover the highest. This is wonderful for me, this moment, this is revolutionary." Perhaps, the key to the film's enduring success, controversy and all, is not answer but a question posed by Benigni: "To laugh and to cry comes from the same point of the soul, no?"

Life is Beautiful is available on AmazonGoogle PlayiTunes, and YouTube.

Cover image: Miramax Films


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