In 2008, I travelled to Poland to visit the home country of my ancestors that perished in the Holocaust. I know, not the cheeriest of opening sentences in a film blog. But, I think it’s important to discuss. The trip was an educational one, and of course, I learned a lot by visiting Krakow, particularly by going to historic locations including the Jewish quarter, Oscar Schindler’s factory, and concentration camps including Auschwitz and Auschwitz Birkenau. What I saw there was horrific, but absolutely nothing compared to what family members of mine saw and endured. My ancestors entered Birkenau through the infamous train-tracks, crammed into cattle-carts, and suffered at the hands of the most monstrous genocide known to mankind. I, however, was incredibly fortunate, because I got to walk out of the camp again.
And as soon as I did, as soon as I returned home to Scotland, I was heartbroken. I was emotionally numb. So I did what I always did; I turned to film. I watched everything I could, Schindler’s List, Conspiracy, The Pianist, and several more. Each film I saw, I became more hurt, more saddened, more absolutely crushed and angry at the horrors of the holocaust. So I did something bizarre, I searched for “Comedic Holocaust Films”. As a Scottish Jew, both my nation and my religion deal with tragedy with humour, and I try to find the light in even the darkest of times, to loosely quote Albus Dumbledore (but not J.K Rowling).
I wanted to see if there was a movie out there that portrayed the holocaust in a different light to only showing the pure horror that it was; a film that still kept the memories of the Holocaust alive, but one that also showed that no matter what happens in life, humans can still strive for survival, and that despite the disguting, vile, and inhuman treatment of the victims of the holocaust, life, still has positive elements, and life can still be beautiful. So what better film to start with. I have since seen several lighter-toned holocaust films, including Jacob the Liar (1999) and Jojo Rabbit (2019), but I still haven’t found any movie more moving, powerful and life-affirming than Life is Beautiful, although Jojo Rabbit comes close.
The film takes place in Italy, and it is initially a comedic love story in Mussolini-ruled Italy. What starts as quirky, funny, and warm slowly turns into a tragic, unrequited love-story between a cheeky, optimistic Jewish joker; Guido Orefici (Roberto Benigni) and his love-at-first sight, Italian woman Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), who are husband and wife in real life. Guido wins Nicoletta’s heart with charm, wit and serious amounts of humour, and eventually, they have a child, Giosuè (Giorgio Cantarini). The family are taken to a Nazi concentration camp, where Guido tries to shield his son from the true nature of the situation that they are in, and makes out to his child that they are in a game – a competition – and the winner gets to win a tank. Guido uses this game to keep his son safe, and the juxtaposition between the game and the sickening treatment of the victims of the Nazi regime, is truly heart-breaking.
Benigni directed and wrote this film, and won best actor and best foreign language film during the 1999 Academy Awards. But that is not why I like the film. I like the film because it shows that despite horror, despite tragedy, despite oppression, hatred, evil, Nazis, abuse, loss and death; life, still, can be beautiful.