Why Life is Not Beautiful in Life is Beautiful: Holocaust in Film

Life is Beautiful, originally titled “La vita è bella,” was released in 1997 in Italy (1999 in the United States). The movie is a drama and romantic comedy that takes place during the 1930s in Arezzo, Italy and revolves around the comedic antics and acting talent of Roberto Benigni, who plays the role of Guido, a Jewish man who arrives in town with plans to open a bookshop. The first half of the movie follows Guido as he attempts to woo Dora away from her fiancé and starts a family with her. The second half of the movie takes place in what the audience is meant to believe is a death camp, where Guido and his son Giosué are interned. During this internment, Guido deceives his son into believing their incarceration is a game, where points are awarded for good behavior and the first person to earn a thousand points will win a tank.[1]

Life is Beautiful DVD Cover

Life is Beautiful DVD Cover

In 1999, Life is Beautiful won three Oscars for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Music, Original Dramatic Score. The movie won 55 other awards and received 31 nominations.[2] But, did the movie actually earn those awards? Despite the movie having been called a modern masterpiece, there are many critics and reviewers who believe the movie doesn’t live up to the hype it received, referring to it as an “unholy film,” or a “cinematic abortion.”[3] This paper will explore and present major themes in those negative reviews, looking for common complaints that may be used to point out potential weaknesses in the movie. There are a number of criticisms of the movie among reviewers, but surprisingly, after reading approximately one-hundred reviews from IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes (which links to external sites, including Time Magazine, Salon.com, and SFGate), I discovered that almost all of the complaints fall into just a few categories, including poor acting, implausibility of the plot, historical inaccuracies, the poor choice of humor, and a general insensitivity to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust itself.

The main complaint regarding the quality of acting begins with Benigni himself, who one reviewer describes as “a six-year old trapped in the body of a middle-aged Italian man on a steady diet of Red Bull and Ecstasy.”[4] Benigni’s performance of Guido became difficult for some viewers to watch, for a few reasons. Benigni is, first of all, overly energetic throughout the movie and talks incessantly, rarely allowing any other character get a word in edgewise. This problem is also indicative of bad directing, since Benigni was both the director and lead actor. His overwhelming of the storyline through Guido leads directly to the next problem with acting in the movie: the nature of the other characters. Perhaps because they have so few lines, they have no room to develop as independent characters and remain two-dimensional, cardboard cutouts. One reviewer complained of the irony of Jews being dehumanized into a faceless mass by Life is Beautiful in much the same way they were dehumanized by the Holocaust itself. Overall, reviewers noted that all of the characters in the movie merely act as targets for Benigni’s gags or as foils to emphasize the good natured optimism of his leading character, Guido.[5]


The second largest complaint generally centers on the implausibility of the plot itself. The movie is divided into two distinct portions: the town scene, where Guido woos Dora, they get married and have kids; and the concentration camp scene, where Guido lies to his son about the nature of their surroundings in an effort to shield him from the horrors of reality and thereby preserve his innocence. Regarding the first half of the movie, most reviewers complained that Guido’s buffoon antics make him a completely unbelievable character that would not have been able to attract Dora, who would have, in the words of one reviewer, been more likely to have a restraining order issued against him. The first portion of the movie was generally described as contrived, predictable and ultimately useless in terms of lending anything useful to the second half of the movie. One reviewer summed it up quite well by saying that when the movie transitioned to the second half, he felt as though he had changed the channel on his television.[6]

In the second half of the movie, the implausibility of the plot was even more evident. Reviewers cited specific cases which make the movie impossible to believe or take seriously, starting with Guido’s intentional failure to relay important instructions to the Jews who have just arrived in the death camp, instead creating a fanciful speech about the rules of the “game” that he says is being played, for the sole benefit of his son. Had this really happened, it is entirely likely that it would have been discovered, leading to Guido’s death, either by the Nazis or by the Jews who were left in the dark about what was going on because of Guido’s disregard for their lives. Also hard to believe is that Guido is able to hide his son in a death camp after all of the other children are exterminated. And not only did Guido hide him, he had his son speaking on an intercom system to communicate with his mother in the conveniently nearby women’s camp, which did not result in the death of either the father or the son, though it should have. The biggest implausibility of all is that the kid actually believed the lies his father was telling him. Reviewers stated that the kid is depicted as being intelligent, so how could he have spent any time at all in a death camp without realizing what was going on, especially after all of the other kids disappeared?[7]

This leads directly into the next major complaint, which was the lack of historical consistency present in the movie. To start with, Guido and Dora’s marriage never could have happened, because marriages between Jews and non-Jews had been made illegal. The camp that Guido and his family are taken to is mentioned to have a crematoria and mass killings, which would make it a death camp, and yet, according to reviewers, all of the death camps were in Poland and Italian Jews remained in Italy. Most of the historical criticisms revolved around the conditions portrayed in the death camp itself. In a real death camp, people would not have appeared well-fed and well-dressed. People would not have had a bunk to themselves. Guido would not have had freedom of movement to wander the camp as he pleased. Central areas with intercom systems would not have been left unattended and had a Jew taken it upon himself to use the camp intercom without permission, he would have been killed on the spot. Had a Jew spoken to a guard, he would have been killed on the spot. Death wouldn’t have been hidden away in foggy piles of dream-like bodies; it would have been casual and ever-present. There is no way Giosué could have missed it. One reviewer wrote that the death camp looked more like a fat kids’ summer camp than a place where people were being systematically murdered. [8]


And perhaps that’s the biggest problem with the movie. The audience is led to believe that the lies being told are meant to spin a horrible situation into a fable to preserve the innocence of Guido’s son. In the beginning of the movie, the story is presented as a fable, but some reviewers didn’t feel that labelling the movie as a fable helped make it any more believable, because fables are meant to deliver a moral truth and what moral truth is there to Life is Beautiful? That lying makes life bearable? That’s certainly not what the movie is billed as delivering. The DVD box cover insists that “love, family and imagination conquer all,” but that’s not possible, or at least it’s not possible given the way the movie is portrayed, because if it were, no one would have died in the Holocaust. Certainly Guido wasn’t the only person who loved his family and had imagination. What about all of the other people? Why didn’t their humor save them? Maybe they weren’t funny enough.[9]

The type of humor used in the movie was another big issue with reviewers, including many reviewers who gave the movie moderately good ratings. Benigni’s brand of humor is very physical and includes a lot of slapstick humor, which for some was bad to start with, but for others could have been fine, had he been able to pull it off well. Many people complained that his jokes were entirely predictable and because you could see them coming, there was no reason to laugh when the moment arrived. For example, when an egg goes in a hat, it’s eventually going on someone’s head. Benigni was accused of grandstanding and trying so hard to be cute that he forgot to be funny. He was also accused of trying too hard to be Charlie Chaplain, but wound up just being loud and obnoxious. Reviewers also stated that instead of creating his own version of “The Great Dictator,” Benigni produced something much more similar to an extended episode of “Hogan’s Heroes.” He was accused of using the Holocaust as a prop to hide his poor comic ability and earn himself an Oscar, because including the Holocaust would make his movie critic-proof.[10]

That point brings us to the final, and perhaps most often cited, complaint about the movie: it is completely insensitive to the nature of the Holocaust, what it meant for the people who were victims of it, and what it should mean for those of us who learn about it today. The movie was, according to multiple reviewers, so sanitized that it probably wouldn’t even have offended the Nazis. A few reviewers said Life is Beautiful would have made great Nazi propaganda for Goebbels to show the Red Cross, to prove that life in the camps wasn’t so bad after all. Many reviewers called the movie an attempt at neo-Nazi revisionist history that denies the overwhelming horror of the Holocaust and that the movie obscures the human and historical events it set out to portray. It doesn’t expand our knowledge of the Holocaust and instead acts as a plot device to help Benigni bring more attention to himself.


The negative reviews of this movie have very strong arguments that point to serious flaws in the movie that could have been addressed to create a better movie. The movie doesn’t really show that life is beautiful. It shows that life for characters created in the author’s imagination is beautiful. If depicted realistically, this movie would not have ended well for any of the characters involved, and without those elements of realism, the movie cannot really hope to deliver a message as strong as family, love and imagination conquering all, because in the movie, that doesn’t happen. Instead, events are set up in such a way, and history is rewritten in such a way, to make it possible for “all” to be conquered. Had elements of real terror been included in the movie, alternated by more fantastical scenes as recollected by Giosué, it could have been possible to pull of what Benigni intended, but instead, he created a platform for selling himself, reducing all but the leading character to caricatures of human beings, doing implausible things in inaccurate settings using poorly thought out humor and ultimately desecrating the memory of millions of people who died in the camps.


[1] IMDb, “Plot Summary For Life is Beautiful,” 2013.

[2] IMDb, “Life is Beautiful (1997),” 2013.

[3] IMDb, “Reviews & Ratings for Life is Beautiful: La vita è bella (original title),” 2013.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

 

References

Flixster, Inc. 2013. “Life is Beautiful (La Vita è bella) Reviews.” Rotten Tomatoes by Flixster. March 8. Accessed June 13, 2013. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1084398-life_is_beautiful/reviews/.

IMDb. 2013. “Life is Beautiful (1997).” Internet Movie Database. June 15. Accessed June 15, 2013. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118799/.

—. 2013. “Plot Summary for Life is Beautiful.” Internet Movie Database. June 15. Accessed June 15, 2013. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118799/plotsummary?ref_=tt_stry_pl.

—. 2013. “Reviews & Ratings for Life Is Beautiful: La vita è bella (original title).” Internet Movie Database. June 8. Accessed June 13, 2013. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118799/reviews?filter=chrono.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis: The Holocaust in Film

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Image appropriated from Tumblr).

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Image appropriated from Tumblr).

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, originally released in Italy in 1970 under the title “Il giardino dei Finzi Contini,” was directed by Vittorio De Sica. The film uses the lives of an aristocratic Jewish family to tell a story about the Jewish community and fascism in 1930s Ferrara, Italy. The plot of the story seems to revolve primarily around the interactions between Giorgio and the Finzi-Contini family. The increasing limitations on the rights of Jewish people in Italy plays out in the background and only reaches center stage in the closing sequence of the film, when the Jewish people of the town are rounded up and concentrated in the school building.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is a color film that contains two very noticeable camera techniques. One technique used throughout the film is the blurred lens or soft focus. In some scenes, the soft focus is light and feels a little pointless. In other portions of the film the soft focus creates heavy blurring. An example is the scene where Micol is sitting in the back seat of a government car that is taking her and her family to the town’s school house as part of a collection and deportation process.  The blurring may have been added to the scene to emphasize the dreamy or surreal quality of the experience.

The other camera technique that is used extensively is zooming. In some scenes, the camera starts with a long-shot and zooms out until the actor is in the frame. In other scenes, the camera zooms in on things the director may have wanted to make sure his audience took note of, like the Hebrew inscription on the lintel of Giorgio’s home, or Micol’s Star of David necklace. Perhaps there is another reason for the zoomed in scenes of Jewish symbols, but it comes across to me as the director not trusting his audience to be able to figure out on their own that the Finzi-Continis and Giorgio’s family are Jewish without prompts and reminders. Maybe that’s the point, though? Reinforcing the fact that, despite social advancement, they’re still “only” Jews.

A large portion of the film takes place on the property of the Finzi-Continis. All of the characters that we are introduced to are wealthy, but the Finzi-Continis are exceptionally well-off, own extensive property and employ at least half a dozen servants. The film begins after the racial laws had already started being passed in the country, barring Jewish people from entering public buildings and clubs. Because of this, the Finzi-Continis are essentially restricted to their walled-in property. As Alberto puts it, even if he went out, what would he do? Where would he go? Alberto also mentions the fact that when he used to go outside of his family’s estate, he felt that he was constantly being spied on and envied. The Finzi-Contini family’s semi-voluntary seclusion behind their garden walls is an excellent foreshadowing of the fact that they will later be involuntarily restricted to a ghetto, or perhaps placed behind the “walls” of a concentration camp.

It is hard to relate to the lives of the people shown in the film, because they live such privileged lifestyles and, despite all that happens, manage to continue living privileged lives. I believe this was an important aspect of the film, because even though the Finzi-Continis are able to ignore many of the rules and live well in their walled garden, in the end, their wealth makes no difference. The fact that they are relatively non-practicing also makes no difference. For all their wealth and privilege and ability to ignore some of the racial laws, like continuing to employ domestiques after Jews are banned from having Italian servants, they receive no special treatment or consideration from the state. For example, the Finzi-Contini’s integrity as a family unit isn’t considered and they are placed in separate classrooms after they are arrested and transported to the school house. They are lumped in with the rest of the Jewish community. The message here may be that there was no escaping one’s Jewish heritage when the fascists came knocking. To the Italians, there was no distinction that mattered other than whether one was Jewish or not.

Trees are an important symbol in the film. At one point, Micol mentions that one of the trees on her family’s property was rumored to have been planted by Lucrezia Borgia and might be as much as 500 years old. The same tree is shown at various points during the film, including the last scene with Alberto, just before he dies. The camera focusing on the tree during Alberto’s death scene may have been done to emphasize the long presence of Jews in Ferrara and the imminent death of that community, because Alberto’s failing health can be seen as an indicator of the state of the Jewish community in Ferrara. As the film progresses and the Jews’ status in the town becomes more tenuous, Alberto’s health declines. In the scene right after Alberto’s funeral procession, we’re informed, through Giorgio’s interaction with the fair booth attendant that the round-up of Ferrara’s Jews has begun.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is an important film that gives the viewer a glimpse of what life was like for wealthy Jews in Ferrara during the round-ups and deportations during World War II. Beyond being a fascinating love-drama that sheds light on class and status within Jewish society, this film presents the Holocaust as an event that touched all Jewish lives in Europe, from the poorest to the wealthiest. It was the great equalizer. Religiosity and self-identification did not matter. All that counted was whether or not one was Jewish.

The Shop on Main Street: Holocaust in Film

Obchod na korze (original title)

Obchod na korze (original title)

The Shop on Main Street is a 1965 film directed by Ján Kadár. The film was originally presented in Slovak and Yiddish and was originally titled “Obchod na korze.” The film takes place in a small town in Slovakia during World War II and attempts to tackle the question of how the Jewish people were rounded up and deported to concentration camps. What was going through the minds of the Jewish people? Why didn’t they fight back? How did the average citizen allow their neighbors to be rounded up like animals and packed into cattle cars for deportation? Kadár addresses all of these questions and more. Besides being an informative and well-told story, The Shop on Main Street is packed with symbolism that further addresses the subject of the film. Symbolism is so prevalent in the film that Kadár was able to present much more information and meaning within the confines of the film’s running time than what seems possible.

The main conflict in the film is between the new fascist conception of the Slovakian nation-state and the Jewish people. Because of fascism’s focus on ultra-nationalism, “outside” elements had to be removed from perceived positions of authority and privilege, which resulted in Jewish people having their businesses removed from their ownership and placed under the control of an “Arisator,” an “Aryan” manager. The idea was that Slovakia was for Slovakians (expressed in the film through a marching cadence sung by soldiers marching down the street), and Jewish people were not considered to really be Slovakian. Later, the Jewish people were deported en masse for concentration camps. This conflict is the backdrop for the story that Kadár presents in his film, in which a bumbling “Aryan” carpenter named Tono Brtko is named the Arisator of a button shop on Main Street owned by a Jewish widow named Mrs. Lautmann.

Tono is a very complex character and his relationships with other people, how he interacts with them, is used as a plot device to symbolically portray the director’s opinion of the Aryanization and deportation process. Tono’s symbolism as a character in relation to other characters has multiple layers, starting with his wife in the opening scene, where Tono demonstrates a poor understanding of anything going on in the world while his wife badgers him for money. I felt that this was a critique of Slovakian society, and on a broader scale, Christian society in general, for the apparent greed displayed in the confiscation of Jewish shops and goods during the World War II deportations. It reminded me of something Elie Weisel wrote, when he said that while he and his family were being deported from their home town, he felt as if the people who had just previously been their neighbors were eagerly waiting for them to board the trains, so they could loot and pillage through their homes. Later in the film, Tono’s wife berates him for not finding the gold that Mrs. Lautmann must have buried somewhere in her house, as if all Jews were leprechauns and one need only catch one to receive a pot of treasure.

The other important symbolic relationship that Tono has is with Mrs. Lautmann, the owner of the shop he is supposedly taking over. Mrs. Lautmann is an old, slightly senile widow. Her late husband died in a war (World War I?) and since then she has been on her own, though technically she has been receiving a stipend from the rest of the Jewish community. Her shop is in complete disrepair, but she seems to be completely oblivious to the fact, and also demonstrates a lack of understanding of anything that’s going on around her, including her new “Arisator-Jew” relationship with Tono, until the last scenes in the film, when reality suddenly and painfully dawns on her. Even at that moment, however, instead of proactively trying to hide herself, she runs to her bedroom to study Torah. In this relationship, Tono clearly represents Slovakian society as a whole, while Mrs. Lautmann represents the Jewish community. In this film, while Slovakians are busy robbing the Jewish people of their property and preparing to deport them, the Jewish people are presented as being oblivious to the real dangers that are going on around them and only wake up to reality when it’s too late to do anything about it (Mrs. Lautmann suddenly recognizes the deportation event as a pogram near the end of the film).

The film does present a different view of the Jewish predicament in the form of Mr. Katz, who reminds the viewer that there really wasn’t much they could do in terms of rising up against their oppressors. After all, what could an old woman like Mrs. Lautmann and an old barber do when the fascist government troops were standing on every corner with automatic weapons? The film doesn’t present a clear and easy answer. I don’t think it intended to. It was meant to inform and make the viewer think about how and why something as tragic as the deportation and later near-extermination of the Jews could occur, and it does that well.

These observations are barely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dissecting all of the symbolism and meaning in The Shop on Main Street. Ján Kadár’s film is excellently done, explaining both the mindset of the Slovakians and the relationship between the average Slovakian and the Jewish community that doesn’t overly simplify the situation into a black and white conflict. Other important aspects of the film are the references to animals and the natural order of the world vs. the activities of the Slovakian government, as well as an excellent use of music to set the tone, but those issues are beyond my ability to address in this short reaction paper.