Memorable appearances in Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law and Night on Earth, and the lead role in Son of the Pink Panther, have given American audiences only a small peek at the many talents of Italy's comedic dynamo, Roberto Benigni. He utilizes many forms of humor in his work, ranging from low-brow sight gags to elaborate, sophisticated puns. But it's Benigni's gifts as a natural-born clown, particularly his expressive face crowned by an irrepressible shock of hair, that make him the heir of both commedia dell'arte and the great silent film comedians.
In his last two films as writer-director -- he also stars with his wife, the wonderful Nicoletta Braschi -- Benigni takes a satirical look at society's bogeymen by having an everyman mistaken for a powerful Mafioso (Johnny Stecchino) and a serial killer (The Monster). In Life is Beautiful, he goes one step further by confronting the Holocaust on the home turf of fascism, Italy.
Guido (Benigni), a charming Jewish waiter with a fantastic imagination, courts Dora (Braschi), a gentile schoolteacher from a prominent family who's inconveniently engaged to a powerful local bureaucrat. That true love wins despite rigid societal restrictions isn't a huge surprise, but Benigni pushes Life is Beautiful to another level when, several years later, the Nazis take Guido and his young son, Giosué (Giorgio Cantarini), to a concentration camp. Now Guido, who has always constructed marvelous and imaginative stories for Giosué, comes up with a doozy: that the horrors surrounding them are actually part of a complex game, and if they're resilient and resourceful, they can "win."
Some of Life is Beautiful doesn't work logically: Guido's numerous antics wouldn't have gone unnoticed or unpunished at the camp. But Benigni's particular skill here is the ability to pinpoint specific moments of encroaching horror and, using sharp humor, lay bare the situation's inherent absurdity and inhumanity.
Life is Beautiful doesn't disrespect the Holocaust, but presents an ideal of family love that manages to provide comfort even during such unthinkable atrocities. Employing comedy that's alternately barbed and hopeful, Roberto Benigni lights a small, flickering flame against the darkness.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.