Roberto Benigni's new comedy, "Life Is Beautiful," begins in 1939 when Italian fascism is rampant, your neighbor's kids are likely to be named Adolph and Benito, and Jews are starting to sense the nightmares in store for them. Benigni plays a Jewish waiter who spends the first half of the story courting and winning a beautiful woman. Five years later, he and their child are herded off to a concentration camp, where our hero is determined to protect his young son both psychologically and physically. Since he's accustomed to fast-talking his way out of difficult situations--he's a habitual improvisor like Benigni himself--he convinces the boy that everything around them is part of a zany game; in order to win you have to obey the uniformed men pretending to be nasty, never ask for food or rest no how badly you want them, and keep quiet in a hiding place when others are sent to a "shower" from which they won't return. I have no objection to using dark humor as a weapon against the Holocaust--classics like "The Great Dictator" and "Seven Beauties" do just that--but I feel Benigni's vision of the modern world's most hideous crime is shallow to the point of irresponsibility ("Springtime for Hitler" finally makes it to the screen!) since it doesn't accompany its doting-father plot with an honest acknowledgement of the true horror of the event it purports to explore, even in stylized or satirical terms. The film's self-indulgence is also revealed by a small moment near the end when the child speaks as an adult on the soundtrack, recalling his father's heroism on his behalf--and not so much as mentioning his mother, who risked her life by becoming a camp inmate when she wasn't required to, just to be near her family! The movie has already acquired strong supporters, including some critics whose opinions I value. I'm unconvinced so far, although I may be prejudiced by my long-term inability to find Benigni more than intermittently funny in the first place, and I suspect the picture will be a hard sell when Miramax releases it. Time will tell.
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