Is Life Is Beautiful the worst film ever made?
I have seen a lot of bad films in my time. Cinematic flops and failures, each terrible in their own way. Directors who didn’t give a shit, actors clearly working for the pay check, sub-par screenplays, awful adaptations, tiny budgets, inconceivably huge budgets. I have seen Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin, a bloated, childish blockbuster that almost sunk the Batman franchise and gave us some of the laziest performances in film history. I have seen Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, an adaptation that skipped out everything so wonderful about the original book to focus on nice visuals and nothing else. I have seen the I Spit On Your Grave remake, a worthless remake of a worthless film featuring nothing but unpleasant gore and misogyny. I’ve sat through lazy Adam Sandler comedies, pretentious indie wank-fests, A Serbian Film, and a whole lot of boring.
However, I can’t remember the last time I saw a film quite as wrong as Roberto Benigni’s 1997 holocaust drama-cum-slapstick comedy Life Is Beautiful. Clearly, this is a somewhat controversial opinion. The film infamously won Benigni the Academy Award for Best Actor; he reacted by running to the stage, manically mugging around the stage and generally behaving like an arse, suffering perhaps the quickest backlash any artist has faced as people realised, “Hey, maybe this guy really is as annoying as we suspected”.
Life is Beautiful was the winner of three Academy Awards overall, being handed the prize for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Dramatic Score. Alarming, the film was nominated for Best Picture. Most people point to Driving Miss Daisy winning Best Picture as a sign that the Academy sometimes gets it wrong. The fact that Life is Beautiful was even nominated is strong evidence that the voters have lost any sense of the plot.
The very idea of a holocaust drama-cum-slapstick comedy should set alarm bells ringing. In 1972, legendary American comedian Jerry Lewis starred in The Day The Clown Cried, about a circus clown responsible for leading the children of Auschwitz into the gas chambers. Sounds horrible? Maybe that’s why it’s never been released. The film was notoriously so awful, it has only been seen by an unlucky few. Harry Shearer, someone unfortunate enough to have seen this debacle, described it as:
“…So drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is.”
When Jerry Lewis made a slapstick comedy set in the Holocaust, it was sealed away in a vault, declared unfit for human consumption. When Roberto Benigni made a slapstick comedy set in the Holocaust, it won three Oscars. Lewis must have been furious.
Watching the first half of Life Is Beautiful, you’d probably struggle to believe it’s even a film about the Holocaust. Other than a few token references to the future plight of the Jews and a few shady Germans hanging around Italy, a staggering sixty minutes of the film is spent on simply hanging around with Benigni’s Guido, an irritatingly positive man who gets into an interminable amount of scrapes and capers, many of which should see him arrested and utterly pasted by the police. Sadly, it seems 1940’s-era Italian policemen were all incompetent, allowing Guido to sneak into a school to woo his future wife (played by Benigni’s real life wife, the charisma-free Nicoletta Braschi), steal people’s bikes, accidentally pose as royalty while driving an out-of-control car, and all other manner of twattery that made me absolutely detest him after about fifteen minutes. The first half is so irrelevant, so overwhelmingly whacky and frantically unfunny, it may as well be called Mr. Bumble’s Bicycle. Or Mr Bean’s Roman Holiday.
You know a Holocaust film is bad when you’re actively counting down the minutes until the Nazis to come and take the leading character away, but that’s a fair representation of how rubbish Academy Award-winning Roberto Benigni is. It’s baffling how someone so clearly influenced by the legendary Charlie Chaplin has missed everything that makes Chaplin so loved. Whereas Chaplin was the scrappy underdog who rarely got the happy ending, Benigni’s Guido is loved by everybody and happy about everything. He even gets the girl with no difficulty, something Chaplin famously didn’t in City Lights. Watching Life Is Beautiful, I was reminded of Blackadder’s quote about Charlie Chaplin:
“To Mr. Charlie Chaplin, Sennet Studios, Hollywood, California. Congrats stop. Have found only person in world less funny than you stop. Name Baldrick stop. Signed E. Blackadder stop. Oh, and put a P.S.: please, please, please stop.”
Substitute ‘Charlie Chaplin’ for ‘Robert Benigni’ and you’ve got a reasonably mild version of the letter I would like to pen to Mr. Benigni.
After Benigni marries the girl of his dreams, we get a time jump, and settle back in to find Guido now owns a book shop and has a young son, Giosué (played pretty decently by Giorgio Cantarini). The Nazis are now a much bigger force to be reckoned with, and it isn’t long before Guido and his family are carted off in the back of a truck and sent to a concentration camp. This is the point where the film goes from boring and annoying to really quite troublesome.
Guido quickly gets the idea to convince his son that he camp is a game, and the prize is a tank. This involves him covering up every traumatic incident in the camp as just another task, designed to win more points. This isn’t in itself a terrible idea, but Benigni doesn’t have the depth or range to give this any real feeling. Mugging for Italy, he spends his time in the camp clowning around, making his son laugh and getting other suffering inmates to go along with the joke. I understand the intention behind the performance, but it just does not work in the context of a Holocaust drama.
Even the best sequence in the film leaves a horrible aftertaste. Guido pretends to know German so he can translate for a Nazi officer, instead reciting improvised rules to his son and the other prisoners. It’s surprisingly charming, Benigni finally appearing as likable as he does in his own head. A few minutes later, however, I realised that what Guido actually does in this scene; he conceals valuable information from the other men in the camp, to protect his own interests. At least one of these men probably died because of the information they didn’t receive from Guido in this scene. Life Is Beautiful doesn’t show that happening, however, because that would suggest Guido isn’t a lovable hero/greatest man alive.
The concentration camp scenes are mostly poor and/or ineffectual because Benigni never once manages to show the real horrors, or even the real consequences of actions. In one particularly rubbish scene, Guido hijacks the camp broadcast system to deliver a message of love to his wife, over in another camp. The Nazis of Life Is Beautiful give Guido a playful slap on the ear and send him back to work (presumably while calling him a “cheeky little scamp” in German). If a Jewish character in Schindler’s List had performed the same action, it would have been quickly followed by Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth shooting them in the neck.
There is a reason for these unbelievable, false scenes. The opening narration describes the film as a “fairytale”, and this is obvious from the completely unrealistic Holocaust depiction. The problem is, what is the point in making a Holocaust film if you want to avoid anything too upsetting or brutal? To present a fairytale, happy-go-lucky version of perhaps the most horrific event of the last century is to create an offensively meaningless film. For a two hour film, there is only a single scene which shows a genuinely disturbing sight (Guido comes across a pile of dead bodies), and this scene doesn’t work because it comes in-between more and more wearying slapstick.
I will give Benigni credit for one thing, and that’s the ending twist, which is surprisingly effective. Captured by a Nazi, Guido bumbles and goose steps for his in-hiding son to make him laugh as he disappears around a corner. A gunshot rings out. It’s the last time we see Guido. For a character I utterly detested, I was almost moved to see Guido finally killed off, because it felt like an honest bit of filmmaking and an accurate portrayal of the Holocaust. Of course, this was swiftly followed by a happy ending as young Giosué discovers the war is over and gets to ride on a tank. Wonderful.
I almost feel bad hating this film as much as I do. Clearly it struck the right chord with some people, given its box office success and numerous awards. Maybe I’m too cynical; it’s world view is overwhelmingly positive, and something I couldn’t get on board with from the very beginning. I understand what Benigni is trying to do, and I can see why he chose to make certain directorial decisions the way he did. I don’t necessarily think he had bad intentions, either; he wanted to spread a positive message and make a hopeful film. The problem is, Life Is Beautiful is so appallingly misguided, every step of the way, it’s practically a non-starter. A film this wrong on so many levels can only be the result of somebody writing, directing, and starring in their own film. Perhaps if this felt more like a real Holocaust drama, and less like ‘The Roberto Benigni Clowning Around Hour’, it could have worked.
Is Life Is Beautiful the worst film ever made? It’s a tough one. There are definitely things that work in its favour. I certainly can’t call it a lazy film, or a lazy performance. Though Benigni is god awful, his huge physical energy suggests someone who is genuinely trying. The Academy Awards don’t hurt it, either; the film has at least some claim to playing a small part in film history, if nothing else. It’s just so hard to think of a film as ill-advised as Life Is Beautiful. Even if it has good intentions, there’s no getting round the fact that it is a HOLOCAUST DRAMA-CUM-SLAPSTICK COMEDY. That sums it up pretty well. It’s a film that is fundamentally wrong. Like Jerry Lewis’ aforementioned The Day The Clown Cried, Life Is Beautiful should have been locked in a vault, only told as an urban legend in hushed whispers by film producers:
“Have you heard about what Roberto Benigni’s done? He’s only gone and made a slapstick comedy set in a concentration camp!” “Well, that’s his career finished.”
Despite its Academy Award success suggesting otherwise, Life Is Beautiful is a truly terrible film, reducing the Holocaust to some dull romance, unfunny slapstick, and a few token scenes of real horror. There’s a reason Sophie’s Choice didn’t feature pratfalls. There’s a reason Schindler’s List didn’t have a pie fight. There’s a reason Hitler’s trousers never fell down in Downfall (despite the title being perfect for the gag). Roberto Benigni wanted pratfalls. Roberto Benigni wanted ‘funny’ goose stepping. Roberto Benigni wanted whacky antics. That’s the reason, above all else, that Life Is Beautiful is one of the worst films ever made.
Don’t despair though, dear readers. There is a happy ending to this story. Five years after Life Is Beautiful’s worldwide success, Roberto Benigni released his own adaptation of Pinocchio. Despite rave reviews in his native Italy, the film was despised overseas; pitiful box office earnings, the rare 0% Rotten Tomatoes rating, and the Razzie Award for Worst Actor for Benigni’s performance. He’s only appeared in three films since then.
And thus, the karmic balance was restored.
By Harry J. Ford
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