For about an hour, the new comedy "Life Is Beautiful" lives cheerfully up to its title.
A young man named Guido moves to a small Italian town in the late 1930s and meets the woman of his dreams. True, she's already engaged to a fascist official, but Guido won't let details stand in his way. He pursues her with such sincerity that she can't help succumbing to his charm. So far, life is indeed beautiful.
But the second hour takes a different turn. A few years have passed, and while Guido's family is flourishing, the fascists have grown in power and brutality. An aspect of Guido that seemed innocuous before, his Jewish background, has assumed ominous new importance, putting his household in grave danger as the Holocaust gathers momentum.
Guido knows the future might be grim, but there's one thing he's determined to do: protect his five-year-old son from all harm, both physical and psychological, even when the two of them are transported to a concentration camp.
This is a powerful story idea, and "Life Is Beautiful" has already received a slew of accolades, from the Cannes filmfest's Grand Jury Prize to eight awards in Italy's equivalent of the Oscar race. Miramax is now distributing it in the United States, promoting it as a comic fable about "love, family, and the power of imagination."
Enthusiasm for the movie has not been as unanimous as its ad campaign suggests, however, and audiences would do well to ponder its implicit attitudes. To be sure, few people would deny that love, family, and imagination are three of humanity's most precious resources. Yet it is folly to deny the overwhelming horror of the Holocaust, whose savage perpetrators wiped out uncountable numbers of families, including many as loving and as loyal as the heroes of this story. Oddly, the movie tends to minimize this.
Guido certainly deserves credit for his supple imagination; there's no situation he can't bluff, trick, or fast-talk his way out of. But does the film mean to suggest that quick-witted confidence was a match for the terrors of fascist death camps? The movie has a curious message about gender, too - paying tribute to Guido's sacrifices while almost ignoring the contributions of his wife, who treasures her loved ones so much that she enters the camp voluntarily just to be near them.
None of these criticisms means humor can't be a potent weapon against great evils. Charles Chaplin attacked fascism with comedy in "The Great Dictator," as did Ernst Lubitsch in "To Be or Not to Be" and Lina Wertmuller in "Seven Beauties." All used laughter to peel away hypocrisies, deflate pretensions, and inspire hope without understating obstacles.
"Life Is Beautiful" was written and directed by a less brilliant talent, Roberto Benigni, known to US audiences for his acting in some of Jim Jarmusch's pictures. His fable ultimately obscures the human and historical events it sets out to illuminate. Its intentions may be sound, but its achievements fall far short of the ambitious mark it sets for itself.
* Rated PG-13; contains violence and menace in a concentration camp.