Evil in Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful

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The Representation of Evil in Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful AUTHOR: CARLO CELLI
TITLE: The Representation of Evil in Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful SOURCE: Journal of Popular Film and Television 28 no2 74-9 Summ 2000 The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited.

When the subject of Life Is Beautiful (La vita è bella) became public knowledge, there was apprehension because of Roberto Benigni's reputation as a comedian that he might not approach the subject of the Shoah with appropriate sobriety and respect. The film adopted a visual and thematic strategy contrary to the norm in contemporary commercial cinema because of the lack of scenes of horror or violence. Criticism focused on the film's historical veracity and suspension of disbelief. For example, Daniel Vogelmann, an Italian Jew who lost family members at Auschwitz, rejected the idea of presenting the evil of Holocaust in a manner that might mislead new generations into regarding the film as factual. In the United States, critic David Denby led the protest against the film by panning the film as "unconvincing" and "self-congratulatory" and accusing Benigni of perpetrating a Holocaust denial (Denby 96). A cartoon of a despairing concentration camp prisoner holding an Oscar statuette accompanied Denby's New Yorker review. Art Spiegelman, the author of the Holocaust comic book series Maus, drew the cartoon and called the film a "banalization" of the Holocaust (Polese 1). Benigni had prepared for potential criticism by inviting Marcello Pezzetti of the Center for Contemporary Hebrew Documentation (Centro Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea) of Milan to serve as historical consultant for the film. The aim was to gain not only the approval of the Italian Jewish community but also the expertise of its members. Benigni had seen Ruggiero Gabbai's documentary film Memory (Memoria) (1997), in which Pezzetti interviews Italian Auschwitz survivors. Pezzetti, who refused to accept a fee for his services on Benigni's film, realized the enormous professional risk involved in aiding an actor with a comic reputation like Benigni on such a delicate project; indeed, there was the danger that the film could spark a Holocaust comedy genre in the manner that Liliana Cavani's Night Porter (Portiere di notte) (1974) spawned a genre of Nazi pornography films in the 1970s. Pezzetti was also aware of the disappointing history of Italian films depicting the Shoah. Holocaust films have been infrequent, as demonstrated by the small number of American films on the subject. In fact, eighty percent of films on the Shoah have been produced in Europe, and American production is only half of French production. Italy in particular was almost without films on the Holocaust until Gillo Pontecorvo's Kapò (1959) and a sequence of Jews praying before execution in Roberto Rossellini's General Della Rovere (Il Generale della Rovere) (1959). The first Italian film on the subject had anti-Semitic overtones: Goffredo Alessandrini's The Wandering Jew (L'ebreo errante) (1947), a portrayal of the myth of the wandering Jew who expiates his sins in the Nazi camps. Later Italian films on the Holocaust were not any more convincing. Again despite intentions, Gillo Pontecorvo's Kapò has historical and plot inconsistencies such as the final love story between the Russian prisoner and the deportee. Pontecorvo's film, unlike Benigni's, was criticized for showing too many scenes of suffering deportees to the point of being accused of "pornography." Other films presented more visually pleasing portrayals of the deportations, such as Vittorio De Sica's bourgeois Holocaust drama, the winner of an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, The Garden of the Finzi Continis (Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini) (1970). In this film the spectators identify with the attractive and semi-noble...
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