Ten things I learned from La Vita è bella (Life Is Beautiful)

>> Tuesday, January 27, 2009

This could become a semi-regular feature; more importantly, there will be spoilers--so if you haven't learned the things I learned and don't want to before seeing the movie, maybe you should come back tomorrow.

Ten things I learned from Roberto Benigni's La Vita è bella (Life Is Beautiful) (1997):

  1. Nazi concentration camps were very clean and remarkably free of most of the vermin and squalor one might have expected to see;
  2. Of all the things a madcap Italian Jew might have done to piss off Nazi stormtroopers, only dressing in drag was actually a capital offense;
  3. There's a reason there haven't been a lot of heartwarming screwball Holocaust comedies since Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator;
  4. If you make a wish for an American tank to magically appear and rescue you, you should probably go ahead and do it before almost everybody you know in the whole wide world has already been brutally murdered;
  5. No wonder Son Of The Pink Panther was a flop;
  6. If your country is ever taken over by fascists, do a sequence of wacky things for five minutes, like dancing around in front of schoolkids in your underwear or walking a funny walk while you're being frog-marched to an official's office or the site of your murder--it won't keep you from dying a horrific death at gunpoint, but it might keep your audience from remembering that around the same time your movie is set your country had just invented fascism, was gassing Ethiopians who had a problem with their country being invaded and was "BF4EVA!" with Hitler;
  7. Bob and Harvey Weinstein could probably sell ice to Eskimos even if they (the Weinsteins, I mean) shit all over it first;
  8. Getting a ride in an American tank followed by a hug from your mom is much better than having a daddy;
  9. Your time spent playing riddle games with a German doctor would have been better spent spitting in his food, because he'll eventually turn out to be an impotent asshole;
  10. Those two hours of your life you spent watching an Oscar-winning, critically-acclaimed movie that turns out to be faintly hideous in its execution and mildly terrifying in what are obviously meant to be some of its most touching moments will never, ever, ever come back.


mattw Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 7:43:00 AM EST  

I think lesson number ten might be the most valuable of them all.

Janiece Murphy Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 9:24:00 AM EST  

Yikes. I think I'll take this as "move along, nothing to see here."

vince Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 9:27:00 AM EST  

After I saw this movie I could not understand why it got the critic love it did. I don't expect unvarnished reality in my movies, but the fail in this movie was beyond description. Until now.

Ilya Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 9:33:00 AM EST  

I had similar feelings after I watched it (probably in 1998). Now, I'm a Jew who had branches of family tree extinguished in concentration camps. I can't believe that what comes across as a mockery of a despicable tragedy could ever be so well received.

Anne C. Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 10:09:00 AM EST  

I'm not Jewish, nor do I have any relatives who are Jewish, but I don't watch concentration camp movies. The last one I did - THIS one - I spent the entire second half of the movie crying. I think if the camp had been realistic and not a Hollywood version of a camp, I would have spent it cowering on the theater floor, vomiting in fear. I understood that the intent was similar to that one with Robin Williams (Jacob's Liar?) - that with humor and hope and fantasy, one can survive anything.

This isn't to say I agree or disagree, but rather to point out that this is Hollywood you're complaining about not being realistic. Not very realistic of you.

Nathan Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 11:24:00 AM EST  

This is one of those that never roped me into a theater but did get us to Netflix it. We turned it off about 45 minutes in. I suppose I could be offended by it, but it bored me too much to work up any emotion at all.

One of these days, I'm going to actually learn that if the critics call a movie "important", it's not for me. Yeah, I'm lookin' at you, Brokeback Mountain, Cold Mountain, etc.. Truth be told, I sort of yearn for the days when you saw a movie, more or less cold, without having seen or heard much of anything about it.

Random Michelle K Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 11:50:00 AM EST  

Nathan, I think perhaps you're in the wrong industry for that.

Unless it's a blockbuster, Michael and I tend to pick movies without much of an idea about critical success.

Then again, I prefer movies with explosions and avoid "drama" like the plague.

Life is sad enough without having to take on someone else's sadness.

Jim Wright Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 12:29:00 PM EST  

I'll add this to my List of Acclaimed Movies that Actually Sucked if you like ;)

I have a difficult time visualizing the thought process that created this monstrosity.

"It's a comedy!"
"About what?"
"The Holocaust!"
"Oooooh, fresh, new, I like it! Work in a couple of oven jokes."

However, critics serve a useful purpose, if they love a movie and call it important - it's crap. Sure as hell. Emperor. No Clothes. My point exactly, Eric.

*Nathan, if the title has "mountain" in it, it sucks. QED.

Eric Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 2:30:00 PM EST  

Not sure if you've seen La Vita è bella or were just speaking off the cuff, Jim, but there really is an oven joke in the movie, with Benigni's character trying to reassure his young son by lying/explaining that the rumors of people being sent to ovens cannot be true because you don't cook people in ovens. It's another scene that's meant to be touching--Benigni's character is trying to keep his son (who's supposed to be around four-to-six years old) alive by treating their camp experience as a silly game--but that actually ends up being dimly horrific and disturbing. I have no idea what you tell a small child under the circumstances, but the particular deception seems to bear the seeds of its own cruelty.

The thought process behind La vita really is hard to comprehend, though it's not quite inexplicable. I don't want to say that there couldn't be any such thing as a brilliant "heartwarming screwball Holocaust comedy," but it's worth noting that the nearest thing to such a creature I can think of is Chaplin's Great Dictator, which was made in 1940, before the horrors of the war had really become apparent, and which Chaplin publicly regretted afterwards, saying he would have never made the film the way he did, if at all, had he known what 1945 would reveal. As it stands, the camp scenes in Dictator are mostly forgiveable because:

1) Chaplin didn't know what was really happening and later said so;
2) Chaplin's hatred of Hitler was actually progressive and ahead of its time (Chaplin actually attempted to make Dictator in the mid-1930s, but the German movie audience--IIRC only second in the world to the U.S. at the time--was too important to piss off; as a consequence the movie was shelved for several years until the open hostilities of '39 made the production patriotic);
3) There's a veneer of fantasy--Germany and Italy are represented by "Tomania" and "Bacteria" respectively.

Benigni is clearly trying to follow in Chaplin's footsteps, but La vita lacks both Chaplin's profound empathy for all of his movie's good characters (even the less heroic ones) and Chaplin's caustic bile for Dictator's antagonists (Chaplin's "Adenoid Hynkel" remains one of the most ruthlessly venomous-yet-intelligent takedowns of one of history's great bastards ever--Chaplin not only has Hitler's number, he keeps hitting redial).

I'd like to come back to that empathy point for a moment because what may be the singularly most offensive thing about La vita isn't that it's a comedy set in the Holocaust, but that all of the characters other than the father, mother and son at the center of the film seem to exist solely to suffer in near anonymity, including Benigni's character's uncle. One wonders if the other inmates in the barracks occupied by Benigni and son are heroic in helping to hide the son while all the other children at the camp have been executed or merely put-upon, but it never matters because these secondary characters are only there to suffer the injuries and losses that never seem to quite touch the main characters.

The problem here isn't a lack of realism, but that it seems a little despicable and manipulative to show Benigni's family persevering against oppression and horror or whatever, when the dirty truth is that the oppression and horror flows around them with all the consequence of a river roiling around three hard, rocky isles. Benigni complains about carrying an anvil (an anvil?); some man who may not have a name is shown with an arm-length wound (see, it's horrible--but Benigni never lets it get him down!). All the children are herded off to the "showers"; Benigni's son is miraculously spared because he hates bathing (and the human spirit is again triumphant!).

It's a bit of trying to have one's cake and eating it too--and it actually makes Hogan's Heroes at least look honest in comparison, since Hogan's at least never pretended to be anything other than a sanitized formulaic ripoff of Stalag 17. Accidentally rehabilitating a kind of awful sitcom isn't really a filmic accomplishment to be boasted of, unfortunately.

There are moments of mawkishness in The Great Dictator, but it's worth a rental if you haven't seen it. It's likely that Dictator is the movie Benigni wanted to make, not realizing that he was sixty years too late and that Chaplin himelf wouldn't have made it five years later. (Many of Chapin's regrets, incidentally, are noble but misplaced: he made the toughest satire he could make at the time, and more importantly was one of the only filmmakers willing to put his ass on the line to do it.) In terms of postwar comedies, Stalag 17 isn't set in a concentration camp, but the hijinks occurring at the film's POW camp never quite obscure the horror behind the setting, and there's a viciousness to the film's ending that has to be seen to really be appreciated.

kimby Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 5:22:00 PM EST  

I don't fell so bad for only lasting 15 minutes into the movie now. Sometimes when watching those "MUST WATCH" movies, I begin to wonder what is wrong with me, why don't I get it...but then I realize that it isn't me....and I do get it. The movie is JUST.NOT.GOOD.

Jim Wright Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 6:03:00 PM EST  

I saw roughly 3/4 of it, Eric. Hence the oven snark. I thought the movie disturbing beyond words, mostly for that scene in particular - I kept waiting for the punchline, or the message, but it never came.

Understand, I think a holocaust movie should be disturbing, but this was disturbing to me for all the wrong reasons, most of which you've mentioned already.

Re: Hogan's Heroes. I think the difference being that HH never ever touched upon Nazi atrocities. Not even in jest. In fact I'm hard pressed to remember the word "Nazi" being used, mostly it was the Krauts and the Germans. Also, both Kink and Schultz were supposed to be decent people at heart (and in fact Werner Klemper (Klink) fought against the Nazis as a member of the US Army, and John Banner (shutlz, and a Jew to boot) and Bob Clary (LeBeau) were interred in Nazi concentration camps during the war).

Jim Wright Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 6:04:00 PM EST  

Also, the basic McGuffin of HH was that the Germans were idiots and the prisoners were really running the show.

Carol Elaine Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 6:08:00 PM EST  

I knew there was a reason I'd never seen the movie. Now I know there are ten reasons!

Leanright,  Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 7:47:00 PM EST  

I have not seen this movie, but it can't POSSIBLY be more dull than "The English Patient". I am nearly falling asleep just remembering it.

I wanted to die.

Eric Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 9:20:00 PM EST  

I've somehow managed to not see The English Patient, so I can't offer an opinion there.

Ultimately, I think the problem with La vita isn't the slow pace. And there are even some spots in the first half where it's charming and in the second half where it's clever. The biggest problem is that the whole project becomes increasingly offensive as it becomes increasingly obvious that Benigni is just sort of oblivious to the fact that his romantic screwball slapstick comedy is set against the greatest horror of the 20th century, and he just doesn't get it.

That's another difference between Chaplin's Dictator and Benigni's movie, actually (and I do think Benigni thought he was following in The Little Tramp's waddle): although Chaplin wasn't aware of the worst atrocities of the Nazis, he was aware enough for shock and outrage to be front and center in Dictator. Sure, it's funny. Sure, there's a slapstick sequence involving a disoriented Chaplin and a horde of stormtroopers. But there's also a shocking and sad scene in which the ghetto is burned down and Chaplin's final speech in the film is a plea directly to the audience not to give in to tyranny. And one of Dictator's best sequences, in which a group of men attempt to draw lots for an assassination, is poignant and funny and also somewhat profound in the astuteness of its observations of human nature. La vita, meanwhile, struggles to come up with poignant banalities.

Y'know, it's interesting to think about how a movie fails on as many levels as La Vita è bella does: it's actually technically sound and well-acted--it just doesn't work.

Jim Wright Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 9:25:00 PM EST  

You know, Leanright, I usually don't see eye to eye with you, but you are spot the hell on with that English Patient comment. Christ what a boring piece of shit, even the nudity didn't help, and usually I'm a big fan of nudity ;)

By the end of the movie I was hoping they'd all die in a fiery plane crash just to make it end.

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