We all set limits to our imagination but then once in a while someone manages to overstep that boundary, comes up with a hypothesis that seems plausible not just to the creator but holds an appeal to a wider audience. Adolf Hitler came up with one such premise, one of the superiority of the Aryan race, an idea that bludgeoned into history’s most atrocious massacre, not just because of the stupendous numbers of people killed but because of the cold-blooded, calculated way in which it was done. Sometimes we do transgress limits and come up with a story that will simply take over its listeners. 50 years after the holocaust Roberto Beningi made Life is Beautiful, a movie, the first of its kind, that tried to wrap the holocaust in humour.
The story is set in Italy before the German occupation where Benigni’s Guido, a Jewish waiter meets Nicolletta Braschi’s Dora that sparks off an uncanny courtship and ends with their union and then a son, Guise played by the adorable Giorgio Cantarini.
Things seem to be going on fine till the inescapable predicament for all Jews catches up with them and Guido and Guise are arrested by the SS. Braschi joins them of her own will and they all end up in a Nazi concentration camp. The father faced with the task of not only protecting his child from harm but also telling him about the inexplicable cruelty, decides to invent a story, that they are playing a game,with rules made up to fit the camp schedule. There couldn’t have been a more bleak setting for the movie which could pass for a chilren’s movie and actually sprung from the stories that Benigni’s father told his children. Roberto’s father returned from a concentration camp but his mother was worried about the effect his stories might have on the children. Senior Benigni decided to make the stories sound funny and that is the gift that Roberto said his father left him, that of a story that had been told over and over again but this time in a different light.
There is history and then there is the history through cinema, the latter more interesting and popular than the former. Holocaust has always been a recurring theme in Hollywood from the Schindler’s list to The reader. But there has never been a movie that has attempted to laugh at and ridicule the whole idea of racism and been so successful. I mean I can think of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator but that was in different vein altogether.
Benigni’s Chaplinesque impersonation of the school inspector and his hilarious demonstration of the supremacy of the Aryan race, specifically the superiority of the Aryan bellybutton is amusing but school syllabi in German schools were actually changed to fit the bill. When his son tells him that other prisoners are being burnt in furnaces, and are being turned into buttons and soap, Guido scoffs and ridicules the outrageousness of the rumour. What is disturbing is that the museum in Aushwichtz still houses these human artefacts, soaps and buttons made out of human bones.
Life is Beautiful is in a way a scathing satire and a gentle reminder of the surprising things, both cruel and kind, that the left part of the human brain is capable of. A compelling story about the audacity of hope, the power of love, the triumph of faith and a cue that no matter what the circumstance might be... Life is Beautiful.