Boy, that year Benigni really did it, didn’t he?
Not only did he win the Academy Award for best foreign language film, but he also won an Academy Award for best actor and, afterwards, went on to win a Bafta Award too. Truth be told, while this may be the most daring film about the holocaust, Benigni may have done it without thinking too much about it. I mean, anyone that knows Benigni’s work knows that he was a genius before this film, and I guess he was only waiting for the right time to release a film like this that would swipe the world off its feet.
Why do I say it’s the most daring film about the holocaust. I’ll get to that in a moment. I’ll get this other exaggerated statement out of the way first, one that is the negative alter ego of the previous one. Regardless of the fact that it’s a foreign language film (Italian, for those who do not know) this film is the ultimate in pleasing an audience and winning an academy award. Not only is it about the holocaust, but it also has a cute kid, all the while being politically correct to the max, and never really pointing the finger towards anyone in particular…seriously, I doubt Hitler is ever mentioned at all in the film, which is quite strange for a film set in the times and in the environment in which this is set.
Now, back to why this film is so daring. I have seen a lot of films about the Holocaust, but never have I seen one that could be as entertaining as this one without ever being depressing or nerve-wrecking and still remaining really appealing. The Great Dictator, in fact, was the last film to depict Nazism in a funny and satirical way, and the fact that we had to wait so long to get another film like that shows us how two dimensional and old fashioned the cinema can really be. Howeverm, when we compare Benigni and Chaplin, we see that it’s not only these two films that they have in common in a way. Their way to make cinema is quite similar, their tragicomic style is something that is very admirable, and indeed can be admired in both of these figures. To top it all, Benigni never makes a secret of his admiration for Chaplin, and actually seems to quote him in a few bits of the film.
Okay, in examining the film itself, it’s easy to see where it goes wrong, but at the same time all too easy. One of the things I personally can’t stand about this film is one of the things that I only was able to pinpoint about it the third time I saw it. There are a few seconds that start this off that actually say that this is a story, like a fable. In fact, it overlooks a foggy setting, windy, and it looks like the setting of an Andersen fable or something like that. That bit should have been much longer. People need to know that the film we are about to see is just a story that someone is telling. Ultimately, we find out that that is what it is at the end, when the narrator comes back for the second time, and clearly states that that was his story, whether true or false, simply overblown, because most of it was put together from what his mother told him and from what he remembered from his immaculate rememberances of his childhood, that would have been more thoughtless than the one of an adult brought to a concentration camp, especially when disguised by the wonderful and magical figure of the character played by his father, who does his best to disguise the harsh realities of what is going on (to the point when the brutalities of the concentration camp become unrealistic and a second grade element in the film, and why not, seeing as after all it’s a story that the son, now grown up, is telling us, and hence, can only become more magical, with the background elements more hidden away, distant, it we were to retell this story to someone else, someone that has not seen the film yet).
I would like to stall at this point, at the risk of making this review seem too long.
Consider this; when we tell a story ourselves, do we not tend to omit the background of the stories in favour of the actions that take place in the background. Furthermore, consider ourselves telling a story of our childhood; there would be no doubt in my head as to say that yes, I would quite frankly fail to talk about whether it was sunny or cloudy or even whether it was a rock that made me fall off my bicycle the day I broke my leg.
That is the thing about this film; I would not blame someone watching it, and someone being used to the image of the holocaust given by other great films like Schindlers’ List or The Pianist, that give us the image of a concentration camp as hell. I would not doubt that image either, and I doubt that this film wants to rewrite history by changing our perspective of concentration camps. That is why it bothers me that the film did not add more time to the first few frames that we see, and that introduce us briefly to a narrator that anyone would be forgiven for not noticing. That narrator is a key element of the film, although it is only a voice that pops up twice in the duration of the film.
Regardless of all that, I always tend to find the first part of the film more entertaining. I do appreciate that the courting of Nicoletta Braschi (who actually acts well for a change in this film) was given as much time as the concentration camp time, and I am also glad that the marketing and advertising of the film was not fully centered on the concentration camp itself, as it always seems to portray Benigni and a bicycle, whether the kid or Nicoletta are with him, or both. It is an image of a family, and an advertisement that focuses of the simple beauty of life. So ultimately, the film ends up asking the question ‘what would you do if you finally realised that life wasn’t beautiful anymore? Would you disguise it for the people you love? Or better yet, would you keep working to make life beautiful again?’
WATCH FOR THE MOMENT – The magical moment when Benigni picks Braschi up after the opera, and somehow manages to make everything work. The most blatantly charmingly romantic scene to come out of cinema since those big romantic epics that were produced in the fourties and fifties.
ps I actually love that poster. I had forgotten about it, as the one I have on the DVD is different, and it actually looks amazing. It’s like those pictures that would be sold on tin cans a while ago, like old advertisements or packaging for an Italian ‘Panettone’ or ‘Pandoro’, I like the latter better anyways.