Issue 228 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1999 Copyright Socialist Review



Mixed emotions

Life is Beautiful: a fairytale quality

Life Is Beautiful
Dir: Roberto Benigni

Is it possible to make a comedy that takes place in a concentration camp? The critics have been debating the point--some say this film is tasteless because it denigrates the memory of the Holocaust. Some say it is historically inaccurate. Yet Life is Beautiful has won awards at Cannes and in Jerusalem, and not because it is a 'lowest common denominator' populist film.
It is the story of Guido (Benigni), who rides into a small town in Mussolini's Italy to stay with his ageing uncle. He falls for a local teacher and the first half of the film is concerned with their courtship. Benigni is a clown famous in Italy, and the physical farce is beautifully performed. But the real strength of the humour is how Guido presents fascist ideology as idiocy. In one scene he impersonates a fascist school inspector and ends up standing on a table, displaying to the children his perfect ear lobes and belly button--an example of Aryan superiority. He tells them the 'racist scientists' sent him and pours scorn on ideas of racial superiority. This is definitely an anti-fascist film.
His beloved Dora (Nicoletta Braschi) does spend all of the film doe eyed and fawning, but she is also dignified in her actions. And that is important, because Guido woos Dora away from the fascist bureaucrat Rudolfo. They marry and have a son, Giosué. But Guido is Jewish and Dora is not.
The second half of the film commences as Guido, Giosué and uncle are swiftly rounded up and taken to a concentration camp. Throughout their stay there Guido convinces Giosué that they are playing a game with hard rules, and that if they play well they will win. The rules are: not crying, not wanting to find your mother, not demanding food, hiding on command and, in every instance, doing what you're told. As an attempt to shield his son from the horrors, and to save them, it is portrayed as desperation on Guido's part. It is also heartrending for the child, and the audience.
Moreover, as a strategy for dealing with the Nazis, it is dangerous. When Giosué runs to tell his father that the other children have been taken to have a 'shower' (the gas chamber), Guido, in his innocence, demands that his son goes with them and does what he's told. This is a clear message that playing by the rules does not work. For me, it was the overwhelming message of the film.
The full reality of the Holocaust would have been out of place here. Indeed, the inability to comprehend the reality of the Holocaust is a theme running through the whole film. However, the distinction between the unimaginable and the imaginary becomes blurred. Guido has the ability to run around in the camp like some sort of superhero with an invisible cape. He can hide Giosué He can even gatecrash him into a fascist banquet. Their survival is always a cinematic miracle. We don't believe it, but we want to.
It is similar in the village of the first half. It is an idyllic town with perfect chic interiors. The scene of the couple's elopement could have been a Chagall painting! And although it is said that 'times are hard', there is no hardship anywhere. Consequently. there is no idea of where the fascists come from. They are 'The Angry Guys Who Yell A Lot' and they are just there. For Guido there is no way of combating them other than exposing their stupidity and building an imaginary world for his family. There does not need to be a historically perfect background to every story, but because there is no understanding of how history happened, in this story, it leaves a big gap.
Guido's friend told him that, according to the philosophy of Schopenhauer, if you think something strongly enough you can make it happen. There is a fairytale quality to the whole film, as if believing is enough to keep someone alive. History tells a different story.
In Italy fascists have won elections, and have a degree of respectability. In that environment, Life is Beautiful has broken all box office records for an Italian film, and is doing a superb job of exposing Nazis as the hideous figures that they are.
Esther Neslen

Out of time

Titanic Town
Dir: Roger Michell

Julie Walters

It's 1972 in Belfast. Julie Walters plays Bernie McPhelimy, a working class Catholic woman whose family move onto an estate in Andersonstown, and into the escalating war between the British army, drafted in three years before, and the IRA. They deal with the violence around them, as a soldier and a neighbour are both shot with stoicism and humour, until Bernie's friend is accidentally killed in crossfire between the British army and the IRA.
She responds by associating herself with a peace campaign, eventually collecting 25,000 signatures on a petition. Unsurprisingly, in the context, her actions provoke anger and accusations of collaboration with the British state from her daughter and from her neighbours, a well founded fear as it transpires that the British are more interested in those who haven't signed. Ultimately the family is driven out of their home, but not without winning some respect from those around them.
This is a contradictory film: on the one hand it powerfully portrays the impact of British occupation on ordinary people, is sympathetic to the working class and scornful of the middle class women who try to initiate a campaign with no knowledge of life on the estate. It is very well acted, has some very funny moments and is sharp on the fact that the British are manipulating Bernie's desire for her kids to live in peace. It also stands out from the standard view of the 'troubles' in its portrayal of the IRA as ordinary people who are part of the community, not bloodthirsty robots or lunatics.
However, there is a real problem with the film. It mirrors the real life peace campaigners Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan who won the 1976 Nobel peace prize and were criticised by civil rights activists for condemning the violence of the oppressed rather than of the oppressor. In the context of 1972 Bernie's campaign for peace, which sees her allied with the church as well as the British, ends up being reactionary. She is led to condemn violence in general, rather than seeing the IRA activity as a result of the presence of troops on the streets.
Michell is clearly trying to tie together the peace movement in the 1990s with the 1970s without grasping the different political climate. By the time the Good Friday Agreement was signed, there was an intense war weariness. After 25 years of war it was clear that the armed struggle had reached an impasse. But back in 1972, the IRA were only just re-emerging as defenders of the nationalist community which faced sectarian and state violence directed at Catholic areas.
The political context beyond the armed conflict is noticeably absent, leading the audience to the conclusion that the demands of the 1990s would have been just as relevant and radical in the 1970s. Therefore, the conclusion of the film portrays Bernie as a heroine ahead of her time, standing out against intimidation when her house gets attacked. The other Catholics on her estate, understandably angry at her actions, are simply crude caricatures.
Ultimately, by stressing the connections to today, rather than political or class loyalties as they genuinely would have been in 1972, the result is a misleading, missed opportunity to make a more than half accurate film about the 'troubles' in Ireland.
Megan Trudell

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