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La Vita e Bella (Life Is Beautiful): Collector's Edition

Buena Vista Home Video

Starring Starring Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi
and Giorgio Cantarini

Written by Roberto Benigni and Vincenzo Cerami
Directed by Roberto Benigni

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In 1972 comedian Jerry Lewis wrote, directed, and starred in a movie apparently so awful and misguided that he locked it up in his vault and it hasn't seen the light of a projector since. That movie was The Day the Clown Cried, telling the unimaginable story of a Jewish clown in a Nazi concentration camp.

Lewis' rare good judgment in pulling the film seems to have escaped equally silly Italian comedian Roberto Benigni — as well as sap-headed moviegoers — as Benigni's eerily similar holocaust farce Life is Beautiful reaped untold awards and box-office bucks in 1998.

Benigni — previously introduced to a minuscule American audience in Blake Edwards' slightly more creditable Son of the Pink Panther — wrote (with Vincenzo Cerami), directed, and stars in this atrocious story of a bumbling Jewish waiter in WWII Italy who protects his feeble-minded son from the Nazis with a series of dull antics and sloppy pratfalls.

There is so much wrong on so many levels with Benigni's "masterpiece." Firstly, it is an amateur work of shoddy craft that is uninspired throughout. Benigni's direction is maudlin and lifeless, his writing one-dimensional, and his performance myopic and grating. Apparently inspired by silent film comedians Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, the only trait Benigni seems to have inherited is Chaplin's simplistic sentimentality. The physical comedy on display features none of Keaton's or Chaplin's balletic grace or creativity, and completely forsakes small nuances for shameless, unmerited emotional pandering.

Even worse, this buffoon cannot savor his benefactors' legacy of silence. A manic imbecile, Benigni does not shut up for the length of the film, yammering away his sub-moronic delusions throughout. And technically, Life is Beautiful is fails to inspire. Tonino Delli Colli's cinematography is flat, dim, and clumsy, inferior to many low-budget 1970s pornos.

But that's just scratching the surface. This film is also deeply offensive, primarily for its rampant stupidity. Benigni wants to have it both ways — he needs the drastic backdrop of the Holocaust to elicit the strong emotions associated therewith, but, in danger of trivializing his dopey conceit, must powder over the wrenching reality of the situation.

Although most historians would have you believe that concentration camps were cruel, dehumanizing pit-stops before the gas showers, this is not true for Benigni. While the other shaven-headed prisoners glumly go about performing their chores, bushy-haired Benigni and his son scurry comically about the compound, raising all kinds of mediocre mischief without consequence — and without the screenwriters even bothering to fudge a way out. Exempli gratia:

There is absolutely no danger of harm in Life is Beautiful, except where it suits Benigni; and, with one exception, it only happens to characters we don't know (we hardly notice the briefly mentioned disappearance of children and old people). There is one chilling scene buried late amongst all the muck, when Benigni's character wanders wondrously through a smoky fog enshrouding his deathcamp playground. When the air clears, his goofy, gaping face is met by a still-life tableau of perfectly piled corpses. It's potent moment, but also telling. The surrealism of the image is a clue that not even the grim reality of death can puncture this foolish fantasia and, sure enough, immediately following this scene, Benigni, unaffected, is back to his Holocaust hi-jinks.

When death does finally bring a thankful end to Benigni's reign of error, it happens far too late. Not only would Amon Goeth of Schindler's List have whacked him upon arrival, but any self-respecting prisoner stuck in loud Benigni's bunk would've beaten him dead with a soup spoon the first night.

The reason why Life is Beautiful has met with such success is easy to explain: It panders to the lowest common denominator, while hiding behind the pretense of an art film. For laughs, the funnyman trips over a chair and drops eggs on another man's head. For tears, a boy's life is threatened by a gas shower. If this film weren't foreign, it would have starred Robin Williams and disappeared from the theaters as quickly as Jakob the Liar.

Admittedly there are two funny scenes locked in this dreadful bulk, but overall they accentuate the disgusting fabricated "heroism" of a man who does nothing but lie to his young son — who is himself a worthless, thick-headed boob to buy such flagrant falsities. A great irony, too, is that the best jokes aim to deflate fascism, while Benigni's film is itself a culprit of the most overbearing emotional fascism since Beaches.

The ending shamelessly and bewilderingly romanticizes the proceedings, basking Benigni's deceptive, often irresponsible parenting as courage which saves his son's life. If anything, Benigni's conspicuous, madcap antics unnecessarily endanger his boy, especially during the final reel. While all the other prisoners wait for the guards to desert, and then walk out of the camp, free, Benigni stupidly drags his son out into the fray of fleeing war criminals and leaves him stranded — only to be saved by schmaltzy, coincidental screenwriting. It's the same kind of sickening revisionist stupidity that marked Forest Gump as such worthless dreck.

This is not a film, as has been reported, about the need for laughter during desperate times, or the surviving power of hope, or even, simply the beauty of life. It's a simpering, fourth-rate farce celebrating self-delusion and one man's right to be an annoying asshole. The air-headed tone of the film would've been more suitably described by the titles The Nazis Must Be Crazy or Auschwitz on Ice.

Good transfer, 1.85:1 widescreen, and both Italian and English 5.1 Dolby Digital audio tracks. But this disc's status as a "Collector's Edition" is questionable — besides being crap, it includes only trailers and a featurette.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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