Life Is Beautiful: A Clown’s Guide to the Gas Chambers

A new look at ‘Life Is Beautiful’ reveals the psychoanalytical drama and the theoretical foundation underlying this masterful film.

Ido Setter
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A scene from 'Life is Beautiful.'
A scene from 'Life is Beautiful.' Credit: Courtesy
Ido Setter

“Bein humor letrauma, bein etika le’estetika” (From Trauma to Humor, Ethics to Aesthetics: Thoughts on Roberto Benigni’s Film ‘Life is Beautiful’), by Aya Bendat, Resling Books (Hebrew), 225 pages, 69 shekels.

What is it about Roberto Benigni’s film “Life Is Beautiful” (1997) that enthralls Israeli researchers of culture? After all, two studies of the film have appeared in book form in Hebrew, which is two more than are generally written in that language on non-Israeli films. On top of which, it’s a “foreign” film (that is, not a product of Hollywood, whose films we imbibe with our mother’s milk), it’s in Italian, and even though it was a great success, won international acclaim and garnered three Academy Awards – it is also a very unconventional “Holocaust movie” that sparked a trenchant and tempestuous public debate. Aya Bendat’s book joins another Israeli work about the film – Kobi Niv’s “Life Is Beautiful, but Not for Jews” (2000; English version, 2003) – and discusses the subject at hand in a similar context, albeit from an opposite standpoint.

Bendat places the film’s ethics at the center of her discussion. A consideration of the connection between ethics and works of art is estimable, particularly in the present period, when such discussions seem to have disappeared, for reasons such as “How much more can we take?” Or, “It’s like that simply because it’s like that.” Or, “It’s like that because that’s what’s right for the work.”

In fact, questions about the interplay between ethics and aesthetics have accompanied the cinematic art since its inception. Films such as D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) and Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” (1935) are particularly well-suited to such a discussion. Indeed, for a time in the realm of international filmmaking, the ethical dimension of the aesthetic representation of cinema was the hot topic that inspired both filmmakers and culture critics.

Jean-Luc Godard’s well-known remark in connection with the 1959 Alain Resnais film “Hiroshima Mon Amour” – “Every tracking shot is a moral act” – illustrates the importance attached to the ethical approach that is expressed through the filmmaker’s aesthetic choices. That viewpoint seems to have gone by the boards: In the ethics-aesthetics equation, the current emphasis is entirely on aesthetics.

Bendat considers the ethical stance manifested in “Life Is Beautiful” through an examination of the film’s aesthetic elements. Even though she notes, and rightly so, the impossibility of separating form from content (in art as such and in the cinema in particular), it is worth dwelling at the outset on the narrative of the plot – one of the reasons for the criticism leveled at the film.

The story is about Guido (played by Benigni), an Italian Jew who marries a Christian woman, Dora, in fascist Italy of 1939. A son, Giosue, is born to the couple, and their lives play out in the shadow of World War II and the persecution of the Jews in Italy. In the film’s second half, Guido and Giosue are taken to a concentration camp, and Dora insists on going with them.

Guido tells his son that life in the camp is actually a game in which the idea is to win as many points as possible. Whoever reaches 1,000 points first wins a tank. Despite the horrors that unfold all around them, Guido continues to present the appalling situation as a game to his son. With the camp and its residents about to be liquidated, Guido hides Giosue in a sweat-box, sneaks into the women’s part of the camp and warns Dora about the impending calamity. He is then caught and executed. An American army force liberates the camp, and the astounded boy shouts “It’s true” when he sees a tank coming through the gate. Allowed by the soldiers to ride on the tank with them, Giosue spots his mother and is reunited with her.

Bendat considers the complexity of the story, which addresses some of the central traumas of Western culture. In addition to the trauma of the Holocaust, the film alludes to the trauma of the transition or descent from the stage of childhood to the stage of knowledge and suffering (the transition from the imaginary to the symbolic stage, in psychoanalytical terms), the trauma of the relations between Judaism and Christianity, the trauma of coping with social mechanisms of suppression, and the trauma that is generated by the surfeit that characterizes modern and postmodern life.

What all these cases have in common is the “scapegoating phenomenon”: In every such trauma story, there is always someone who victimizes himself or another in order to atone for sins committed by someone else.

The book also analyzes Benigni the director’s momentous aesthetic choices. No discussion of the aesthetics of a film such as “Life Is Beautiful” is possible without the fundamental question of representation being posed: How does one represent cinematically a traumatic event on the order of magnitude of the Holocaust? Should representation of the trauma of the Holocaust on the silver screen resort to deliberately meager cinematic means and involve de-aestheticization, as a counter-response to the exaggerated aestheticization that characterized art created in the pre-Holocaust Weimar Republic?

This issue of principle is further honed in Benigni’s film, whose blatantly surfeited aesthetic comes at the expense of representing things “as they were.” (A salient example of this, which stirred much controversy, is Benigni’s decision to turn the camera away – and, concomitantly, to turn the viewer’s gaze away – from the moment of Guido’s execution.)

Criticizing Christian dogma

The heart of the book is its third chapter, which considers the representation of humor and the comic in the film. Here author Bendat sets forth the general arguments regarding ethics and aesthetic representation, using concrete examples from the film. For example, Benigni hurls barbs at Christian dogma and at the idea of the virgin birth in his representation of the birth of Giosue (Guido and Dora enter an orchard, and in the next scene their son emerges from the same orchard, already 5 years old). However, I find some of the examples, particularly those cited in the course of the psychoanalytical discussion of the film, to be redundant and insufficiently convincing.

What’s missing in these cases is the confrontation that’s called for between Bendat’s approach and the viewpoint of Kobi Niv as expounded in his book. Bendat offers an expansive presentation of Niv’s arguments. In Niv’s view, Benigni adopts a problematic moral stance and tries to appease his viewers’ conception of the Holocaust, by presenting the events as a legend set in some undefined place, and steering the audience to the recognition that, ultimately, life is beautiful thanks to the power of love and forgiveness.

Niv’s arguments are very concrete, drawing their strength from the most basic details of the movie: namely, Benigni’s choice to tell the story as a fable (the film opens with narration by Giosue, who declares that we are about to view marvelous stories told to him by his father), the sterotypical representation of the Jewish charactersand so on. Since Bendat’s arguments draw their strength from the theories on which she relies, it’s a pity that no genuine encounter ensues in her book between general theoretical propositions and the more concrete examples from the film itself.

What, then, is there in “Life Is Beautiful” that Israeli researchers of culture find so fascinating? There is certainly its use of the ostensibly inferior comic genre. It’s good that Bendat is not put off by a comic film about the Holocaust and seeks to find the sublime within the comic. The comic element has a dual existence in the movie – in the choice of the genre but also in the character of Benigni himself: He looks almost a priori comic, even before he evolves into a different character. As Bendat shows, Benigni is aware of this comicality and imbues Guido’s character with both the comic dimension of the previous roles he’s portrayed and the cultural ethos of the image of the clown in Western culture.

The salient moments at which this fusion plays out are also the moments at which one discerns the mutual relations that exist in the film between the narrative and aesthetic elements. An example of this is the scene in which Guido is taken from his store for an interrogation before the eyes of his son. Guido looks back and sees Giosue’s worried look. He raises his legs in an exaggerated manner, and imitates a military strut. This moment can be read as preparing, in plot terms, the moment near the end of the film in which Guido is taken away to be executed, and more generally as heralding Guido’s choice to portray the lethal reality of the concentration camp as an innocent, funny game.

It can also be read as the instant at which Benigni shapes, in the presence of his son but also, in fact, before the viewers, Guido’s image as connecting with the comic tradition of the clown figure, from its theatrical representations in the commedia dell’arte of 16th-century Italy, down to its cinematic representations in the (Jewish?) character of Charlie Chaplin’s “tramp.” These are the moments in which Benigni creates an opening for a discussion of the possibility of critiquing the forces of oppression precisely from the lowly and garrulous standpoint of the clown-philosopher, thereby justifying his aesthetic choices in “Life Is Beautiful,” even if not all of them.

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