(Among the pages I was unable to recover during my frenzied search of caches and web archives in the immediate wake of losing my old Angelfire site were both of the long, detailed rants I wrote about this film. I wrote those pieces when the film was much fresher in my memory, but I’ll try my best to recreate and summarize the most important points.)
I actually hadn’t thought about this insulting farce of a film in a good long while, but since I mentioned it in a recent post, it seemed like a good opportunity to excoriate it anew. So, let’s do that!
La Vita È Bella is one of the most overrated films of the Nineties, and of recent memory. I’m not going to squee all over it simply because it’s a (supposed) historical drama, a foreign film, and (supposedly) about the Shoah. Yet apparently many other people do squee all over it for those very reasons, simply because they’ve barely seen any other foreign films or historical dramas. Contrary to popular belief, a book or film about the Shoah isn’t an automatic tear-jerker or even high-quality just by mere virtue of its subject matter.
Robert Benigni thinks he’s the second coming of the great Charles Spencer Chaplin, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Whatever you think of Chaplin’s personal life and politics, you at least have to give him credit for being a great filmmaker and comedian. Even a lot of people who find some of his films overrated at least respect his place in history and cinematic genius.
Benigni is always on, constantly mugging for the camera, doing obnoxious slapstick, making himself the center of attention, never deviating from the same personality, pouring on the pathos at all the “right” moments. Chaplin’s Tramp character, and the later non-Tramp characters he played in talkies, were much more nuanced. He had the right mixture of comedy and seriousness, the ability to be a sweet, put-upon underdog and then fight back against bullies. I also never feel emotionally manipulated by Chaplin, being told when to laugh or cry.
Also, to Chaplin’s great credit, he later said he would never have made The Great Dictator had he known the situation was anything but funny, and much worse than what everyone thought.
The first half of La Vita È Bella actually isn’t that bad. It’s not particularly memorable or great cinema, but it’s at least somewhat bearable. There are a couple of amusing moments scattered throughout, and Benigni is in his element. Although it’s obvious he shouldn’t be casting his real-life wife in all his movies. I’m sure she’s a lovely lady, but she’s not a great actor.
There are a lot of plotholes and undeveloped storylines and characters in the first half. Why, for example, would Dora leave her comfortable life to marry some Jewish joker? How did Guido get into a country club on horseback, without being kicked out and punished? Why did she finally fall for him?
The second half is what most people have the biggest beef with. It’s a complete slap in the face to historical memory to depict the Shoah as Ernest Goes to a Concentration-Camp Meets Hogan’s Heroes. Seriously, that’s exactly what the second half feels like. Dark, irreverent comedy can be done well, but one has to be very careful about the execution. Benigni has claimed it’s supposed to be a heartwarming fable and not taken seriously, but then why even choose this particular setting?
Guido and Giosué would’ve been killed for any one of the stupid things they do during the course of the second half. Stepping out of line, trying to talk to guards, wandering around at ease, taking over the broadcast system, hiding in the Barracks, you name it. There’s never any real sense their lives are in danger.
Real children who survived the camps were under no illusions as to what was really going on. They didn’t believe it was just some big, elaborate, fun game. They couldn’t get away with hiding undetected all day. Unless they’re supposed to be at a camp like Terezin, there’s no way a child would’ve been spared upon arrival. At least give us a plausible if unlikely reason a child wouldn’t have been gassed on arrival, like the gas chambers malfunctioned that day, or there were too many people waiting to be gassed. I call BS on no one ever seeing this kid or a child being totally shielded from all the horror and deprivations.
My stomach turned when Guido joked about buttoning themselves up and washing themselves up with their friends. I felt so sick and nauseous anyone would even make a joke about that. The second time I watched this film was even worse than the first, and not just because it was a dubbed version.
If you’re going to depict something that was extremely unusual/unlikely, at least ground it in circumstances within the realm of plausibility, and emphasize this wasn’t normal. I’d give this a 2 out of 5, since at least the first half was bearable, there were a couple of genuinely moving moments sprinkled in, and I believe Benigni’s heart was in the right place.