Laughing Through the Pain: A Look into Life is Beautiful

Life is Beautiful - Film Essay

Tragic events rooted in historical fact are not often laughing matters within the realm of film and storytelling. There aren’t many descriptions or artists who share stories of war or famine or genocide that elicit an audience to smile or chuckle at what appears on the screen. These tales are reserved for the serious, contemplative, and tear-jerking films and the filmmakers who choose to share them that wish to bring to light the atrocities inflicted upon a certain group of people for the purposes of getting their stories to the masses. It’s a mature and deeply serious look at the subject and often in graphic detail that shows the pain and misery of both the afflicted and the afflicters with clear heroes and villains and only showing the men of “evil” cracking smiles and experiencing any sort of joy or pleasure, furthering the audiences belief at their intense sadism.

Those who are the subject of the torment and torture are shown, rightfully so, with immense sympathy and their pain is the driving force behind what makes the film so compelling and the impact upon its viewers so lasting. These people are humanized through the lens though the truth behind it is that the reason that they are experiencing such anguish and indignities is because they have been stripped of their title of being human. Dehumanization is why they are where they are in the first place. The men who are forcing their beliefs and the pain upon them have decided that they do not deserve the title of being human and therefore do not deserve to be treated in any sort of humane way. They are not men, women, or children, they are a nuisance that must be eradicated so that the rest of humanity can continue on with their lives without the burden of having to deal with the inconveniences of interacting with their subhuman counterparts. These people are seen as a germ, a bacterium, that is the direct cause of any sort of hindrance to those of a higher standing, race, gender, and ethnicity-wise, from achieving the status of being a pure and first rate, master breed.

With Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful the audience is given something rather rare within the typical arcs of a tragic historical film and especially a holocaust tale, though he is not the first to tackle such subject matter in this fashion i.e. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. They are shown the story of one man as he lives his life both before and during the rise of Mussolini and the Nazi power in Italy. His character and his life within the film doesn’t begin with devastation and hardships but is instead with his fairly good and joyous life as a simple waiter hoping to win the affections of the woman who would eventually become his wife and the mother of his child. He and his family are shown laughing and living without restriction, they are shown experiencing much joy and it almost makes the reality of their situation be forgotten due to the love and happiness that is conveyed on the screen and that is the reason for why this film is set apart from other holocaust and reality based tragic films. Benigni wants to give his audience a character that is able and willing to refuse the loss of his joy and his love even in the face of almost certain termination and amongst intense misery. He wants his viewer to laugh through their tears; he wants them to see that, as the opening quote conveys, “this is a simple story but not an easy one to tell. Like a fable there is sorrow and, like a fable, it is full of wonder and happiness.” Simply because pain is present doesn’t mean that all joy can be overlooked and with that, Benigni crafted a film based in a genre known for its sadness and matter of fact ways and delivered a film that elicits hope and joy, avoiding the tropes of the films before and after it and causing for its impact to be far more lasting.

In his piece Life is Beautiful: Reception, Allegory, and Holocaust Laughter,” Maurizio Viano first discusses how the film and Benigni were viewed by various U.S. film critics and scholars upon its initial release. He details how the film caused a division amongst those both in and out of the Jewish community but that the largest sector of those divided consists of those who enjoyed the film and found it’s humor appealing and those who felt they were above it. Those associated with the highbrow standing weren’t going to “fall for the baits of the entertainment industry (sentimentalism, media-hype, easy-to-understand plots, immediate pleasures)” (50) for they are far too sophisticated for such trivial things. The film’s and Benigni’s reliance on physical/pratfall humor, according to Viano’s study of the criticisms, plays a big role in why the film is overlooked or dismissed as being low brow and worthy of negativity. The physicality is likened to eroticism and pornography with Benigni jokingly claiming to be a pornographer rather than a comedian who is “too physical and unsophisticated to please refined spirits” (51) though he sure does try and desire to. Viano also notes that people do not want to be reminded of this hierarchal approach to films and art and so avoidance is common with the example being Thierry Jousse’s Cannes coverage in which the claim was made that the film neither deserves its harsh criticism nor its grand praise.

Later on in the piece, Viano moves on from exploring the critical reception and on to an analysis of what the film is doing/accomplishing, claiming how the film is clearly two very different halves put together and that Benigni crafted a “filmic space that is virtually symmetrical” (55) and he defends the film's tone and handling of its subject matter by saying Benigni’s Guido character is “an absurd response to an absurd reality” and in this reality, within the realm of the film, middle ground doesn’t really exist. He discusses how the game that Guido plays in the film with his son once he realizes they are being sent to a concentration camp “is also at one with the fairy tale—or, better, the game” (59). This fairy tale/fable notion is crucial to the proper reception of the film from its opening moments to its closing credits.

The audience is first led to believe that the opening quotation, stated earlier in the introduction, is coming from Guido while he walks about holding his son in the fog but as the film progresses it’s shown that there isn’t any fog but instead the smoke from a pile of burnt corpses. It’s misleading but all the more powerful for it. Viano also points out how at the end of the film, it’s revealed that Guido is not the one speaking at the beginning of the film but it is instead his son Giosue who has survived the camp unlike his father and is telling the story from his memories and of stories that he heard, crafting a loving, funny, and moving fairy tale about what is truly a horrific, unspeakable atrocity. ‘“According to what I read, saw and felt in the victims' accounts,’ Benigni remarks, ‘I realized that nothing in a film could even come close to the reality of what happened. You can't show unimaginable horror--you can only ever show less than what it was. So I did not want audiences to look for realism in my movie’” (Viano 54). Benigni had the story be told through the memories and stories of a man who was too young to fully understand what was occurring at the time he was experiencing it and this allowed for the film to be full of wonder and joy, it’s a man’s reflections on the pain of losing his father and experiencing great turmoil but most importantly, it is a man remembering his father and the love of his family. Benigni could have shown the atrocities but what would he have accomplished? In Sandy Flitterman-Lewis’ piece “Documenting the Ineffable” she covers this question and quotes filmmaker Alain Resnais to saying, “How does one maintain the image’s power to shock without evoking either total disbelief or incapacitating grief?” From here it is said that the discussion, the remembrance is what is important and it’s not so much what his image may contain. “It is absolutely necessary to act. Inaction and withdrawal into oneself lead only to despair. The real danger is in passivity, in stopping the struggle, in giving up” (197). According to the piece, the subject matter is what is important, not necessarily what is depicted on the screen and Benigni may have skewed the typical notion of what a Holocaust film should be but he got discussions started and therefore caused passivity to be none existent towards the real matter at hand.

Carlo Celli writes in “The Representation of Evil in Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful about how the film chose to address the horrors of the Shoah. Celli initially focuses on the criticism and reception of the film by various critics much like Viano did in his piece but quickly moves on to a more historic and analytic reading of the text. He discusses the way the Benigni approached the film, noting that he knew that being a comedian would lead many to scratch their heads at the notion of him crafting such a film so he enlisted the aid of Marcello Pezzetti, a prominent figure of the Center for Contemporary Hebrew Documentation, as the film’s historical consultant. Celli explores how the team knew that what they were attempting was risky and specifically citing towards Pezzetti who declined payment for his work on the film even though he knew of the possibility for backlash professionally (Celli 76).

Celli shows in his piece that even though the film has received much criticism by the way of its unorthodox and fantastical approach that by Benigni “not showing the horror of the camps, Life is Beautiful avoids seeming fantastic” (76). In his focus on this, he reveals how even though the film received much criticism for its complete lack of images of suffering and the violence that was stricken upon those forced into the camps, the inclusion of it in other films is what makes them more fantastical in nature. This goes back to the Flitterman-Lewis piece which calls for a focus on the message and the importance of remembering rather than the lack of “realism” depicted on the screen. Benigni never set out to show the horrors of the Holocaust because one simply cannot capture the true devastation and destruction that was involved. His film may not be considered realistic but Celli notes that “after the film was released, stories appeared from survivors deported as children whose testimony seems almost as unlikely as the plot of Benigni's film” (76) and that while other films were focusing on the horror and misery, noted is Pontecorvo’s film Kapò which is called obscene due to its depictions of those at the camp, Benigni decided to show the humanity and humor of a character in an extremely dire situation. This choice came from Benigni’s father who was sent to a Nazi work camp and survived and relayed his stories to Benigni in such a nonaggressive or sorrowful way that the writer/director/star kept it with him his whole life and used it as the basis for the film's story and tone.

Celli concludes his piece with a focus on the genres found within Life is Beautiful and how Benigni incorporates them into his narrative. Celli points out, though less detailed then Viano, how the film is split into distinct halves though he notes how, through the defense Pezzetti, Benigni “never laughs at the Shoah but rather portrays laughter within the Shoah” (79) and details how real life survivors of the camps have written and spoken about the humor among those inside who used it as a way to stay sane and ward off the trauma of the situation. Celli feels that even though Benigni claims that the film is about the love of a father for his son and not a Holocaust film, the way manner in which the subject is presented reveals much about the minds that collaborated in its creation.

“The 1990s marked fifty years since Hitler’s Third Reich attempted the decimation of the Jewish people; Holocaust survivors were again, Neo-Nazi, anti-semitic, and white supremacist groups were gathering strength and attempting to proclaim that the event of the Holocaust never transpired. It suddenly became vitally important to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust would be remembered, retold and passed on to future generations” (Sherman 72). Thus begins Jodi Sherman’s piece, “Humor, Resistance, And The Abject: Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful And Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator,” and her analysis of the Holocaust in film and specifically in Life is Beautiful. She starts off by detailing the paradox of such events, how the deep pain must not be passed on to the future generations but how the truth of such atrocities must be passed on so that they do not occur again. She says that “to reach at the truth of an instance of trauma, sometimes requires moving beyond the facts” (72) and that is where the artistic interpretations within film come into play and that even though there is danger in taking something so sensitive and adding a fictitious spin to it, the fact that it is a reminder and not remaining silenced is beneficial. 

For Sherman, the concept of the abject, as she quotes Julia Kristeva to describing as the “place where meaning collapses” (72), is essential to such works. Guido is the clown in Life is Beautiful and for that, he is already distanced from the others due to being a “blending of humanity with absurdity” (73). He may be forced to be silent as a Jewish man but as a clown, he doesn’t reside in the same space as those around him and is free to speak loudly even when he doesn’t verbally speak. The physical actions were taken by Guido the clown in the film often follow times in which he has been silenced as Guido the Jew. This collocation of events in the film allows for a direct response to occur after any sort of abjection placed upon the character. The clown takes things to the extreme, making the already absurd so much more absurd that one cannot help but laugh at the ridiculous of it all.

Sherman makes it clear as she nears the end of her work that this way of side stepping abjection and maintaining a voice through actions doesn’t mean safety and life as seen in Guido’s death at the end of the film. What is does instead is provide an outlet for others to see and realize what is really going on and allow for them to live on and share? She conveys this through her detailing of “the gift” that the film’s narrator, a grown Joshua, discusses at the end. The gift from his father is “not survival, nor the willpower to effect one’s own survival… the gift instead is the story, the ability to witness the events and retain language to share the experience” (80). Guido’s absurdity and refusal to give into abjection allowed for his son to survive and tell the story of his father with a voice that so many others weren’t allowed to have.

When looking at these readings and the many different ways to approach and interpret the film’s text, it’s interesting to note the views towards humor and joy within the context of a tragedy. All of them have at least some sort of focus on the how Guido interacted with his surroundings and circumstances and through the texts seem to praise how Benigni handled his character in the film, the texts that are cited within are used more as a discourse than for support. The initial feelings toward Life is Beautiful were rather harsh but what the texts I have chosen and what I concur with is that the comedy and joy presented is very important.

Benigni and his team weren’t setting out to make a hard-hitting, historical account of the horrors of the Holocaust; they instead were creating a story that just happens to be set in this culturally sensitive realm. The film isn’t about the Holocaust; it’s about how one man chose to handle his and his family’s subjection to something horrifically abject. What Life is Beautiful does, and like Sherman argues, is take a subject that is incomprehensible and places a character in that world who is so removed from the usual human response system in order to show just how ludicrous and unacceptable what occurred truly is even though the social mindset towards much of what was happening at the time was hauntingly banal. The slapstick performed by Benigni is a key to how this abjection works. Almost every time Guido is faced with oppression or unkindness, the physical actions that occur act as the catalyst between the opposing forces, putting the hierarchal authority in its place. A significant example is when Guido goes to a loan office so he can open up his bookstore and is continually denied services due to his Jewish heritage. After the head of the loan office/local government official denies him again, a series of comical and physical slapstick moments follow at the expense of said official, elevating Guido in the eyes of the viewer though his status does not change in the eyes of his world and may have even made him be viewed even worse. Guido later goes even further to position himself above this man when he comes to learn that Dora, the woman he has pined for from the film’s beginning, is set to marrying this rotten man. Guido showcases his final act of defiance toward him by not only comically screwing up their engagement party but by also completely winning Dora over and making her his wife, the greatest victory for him over a man who tried so hard to push him down and out.

After the romantic chase storyline of the film concludes and finds Guido the victor, Benigni allows for his film to begin showing its dark setting more blatantly. He has lulled the audience in and allowed for them to connect with and care for Guido and his family which makes the realization or remembrance of their circumstances much more like a punch to the gut. At this shift, Guido no longer has the physical advantage over his oppressors; he no longer is able to utilize the power of slapstick because death is now the consequence for his actions. This is a very important tonal shift in the film because up until this point, Guido could take everything in stride due to the satisfaction of those in authority conveniently always getting their comeuppance in one form or another. Now, at this time, all convenience is gone and the comedy becomes crucial to innocence and survival. Though Guido is unable to take part in any humorous physical altercations, he still uses his wits to undercut the fear and degradation that he, his family, and all the other Jewish peoples are being subjected to but the response that is elicited from the audience this time around is much more somber and sorrowful, this is the beginning of laughing through the pain.

In the second half of the film, Benigni shows the heartache and fear and pain of his characters, the characters that have up until this point have been shown being joyous and loving and cheerful. Here Benigni makes his film impactful by showing the pains of a father struggling to maintain the innocence of his son while also trying to keep his head and wrap it around the grave situation he has found himself in. Benigni allows for Guido to finally show some fear and discomfort even though he is desperately trying to mask it and maintain the image of the father that his son has always known. It is powerful to see Guido working so hard to remain unchanged by his situation while seeing the torment in his eyes. The desperation of his jokes makes more of an impact than the joke itself. As the viewer, we see past the punch line and see the intentions, we see the love Guido refuses to let go of, and we see the wits and bravery of a powerful storyteller in Benigni.

Benigni is not afraid to make himself look foolish for the sake of his craft just as he is also unafraid to make himself look vulnerable and scared. The second point is the reason Life is Beautiful is such an accomplishment and a lasting effort. There is a significant moment after the romance chase portion of the film and at the beginning of the painful laughter portion where Guido and Dora are confronting their son in an attempt to get him to take a shower. It’s a cute moment of a family that becomes far more important and meaningful once they are inside the camp and Guido and begun playing the game with his son. Still unaware of exactly what is going on and fearful for his son’s life, Guido scolds Joshua when he complains about the guards forcing him to take a shower. He attempts to persuade him to comply but, Joshua refuses. It is a replay of the earlier scenario but the circumstances make the interaction a far different experience for those watching. It is no longer a playful argument between a loving family, it is now life or death.

Holocaust films are not known for their joy. People generally do not reflect on Schindler’s List or The Pianist or such films with fond smiles gracing their faces but with Life is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni allows for that to be an option. He chooses not to focus on the mass devastation or the immense pain that the genocide caused but instead a man’s love for a woman and then a man’s love for his son. He makes the film tender and light, able to evoke joy and humor and when it is time to be serious he allows for it to happen but he never loses touch with his character, a man who is so full of charm and wonder, his spirit so full of cheer.

It’s a tough road to travel down, a subject that is so personal and so utterly disgusting that many feel that portraying anything other than the devastation will take away from the reality of what really occurred. Benigni understood the sensitivity and knew the risks, he heard the criticisms and defended his choices and ultimately, the film stands as a powerful mix of genres, an experiment that to some succeeded and to some deeply offended. What cannot be denied to that through its humor, through its smiles, Life is Beautiful shows a wholly unique vision of one the world’s greatest atrocities. It shows humanity reigns supreme regardless of what it is faced with. It shows how love cannot be torn away from someone simply do to circumstance. Benigni shows that a man has a choice in how he handles what comes his way and even in the face of insurmountable odds; one can always find some joy, either through a memory or the company of others or the face of a child or a song and a chance that the woman you love can hear it. Life is Beautiful shines stays impactful due to its distinct parts and the connections that are made to the characters on the screen. The viewers laugh when they laugh and when they are supposed to cry, Benigni doesn’t allow them to. He lets them keep their hope and allows his viewers to cry for them but smiling all the while.

Work’s Cited


Celli, Carlo. "The Representation Of Evil In Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful." Journal Of Popular Film & Television 28.2 (2000): 74-80

Grant, Barry Keith, and Jeannette Sloniowski. Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998

Life is Beautiful. Dir. Roberto Benigni. Prod. Gianluigi Braschi. Miramax Films, 1998. DVD.

Sherman, Jodi. "Humor, Resistance, And The Abject: Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful And Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator." Film & History (03603695) 32.2 (2002): 72-81

Viano, Maurizio. "Life Is Beautiful: Reception, Allegory, And Holocaust Laughter." Jewish Social Studies 5.3 (1999): 47-66

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