8Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; together they shout for joy. When the LORD returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes.
9 Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.
This is a simple story, but not an easy one to tell.
Like a fable, there is sorrow, and, like a fable,
it is full of wonder and happiness…
The opening lines of Roberto Benigni’s Academy Award-Winning Life is Beautiful, invite us into a world fantastical and yet recognizable, farcical and yet grave. For many, it is an uncomfortable tale, and perhaps for that very reason it is worth a closer look during Advent. This season invites us to dwell upon our “now but not yet” reality, marked by tragedy amidst triumph, laughter amidst tears, and seemingly, as Todd Deatherage put so well in his recent post, “a lot more ‘not yet’ than ‘now.’” What might we learn from this fable, full as it is with wonder and happiness and sorrow?
At first, it truly is “a simple story”: an endearing rascal from the country, Guido (Roberto Benigni), sets out to make a new life for himself in the city, flying headlong into love with the well-to-do and engaged Dora (Nicoletta Braschi). Guido uses every tool in his possession to woo his “Princess,” and two things become clear right away: 1) Guido pays no heed to societal establishments or decorum; 2) his wit is his life-blood.
This first act of the story is a picaresque conquest , so narrowly focused on Guido’s riotous exploits that the broader cultural climate merely serves as fodder for playful subversion. Eventually, though, reality catches up to Guido. It is the height of WWII in Italy, and Guido is Jewish. At this point, he is living a fairy-tale life with Dora and their young son, Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini), until one day, with jarringly little drama, they are snatched from their home and forced onto trains bound for concentration camps. Joshua is confused and distraught, and you can see Guido’s mind racing, grasping frantically for a way to keep the reality of their situation from his son, to give Joshua not just something to hold onto, but something to live into.
His solution: a game. Making up rules as he goes along, Guido creates a game complex enough to keep Joshua engaged and simple enough to keep him excited. To many critics, this was seen as an attempt to make comedy out of the Holocaust. And in a real sense, the film does soften the brutality of the camps; Roger Ebert notes, “In the real death camps there would be no role for Guido.”  That being said, there are indications in the film that suggest Guido knows just as well as the audience the dire reality of his situation and the extent of his charade. His eyes dart around to the solemn faces of the other prisoners as he crafts fanciful stories about his brutal work days to Joshua, trying as hard as he can to remain upbeat.
One night, carrying a sleeping Joshua home after his most triumphant subversion since arriving in the camp, Guido literally comes face-to-face with the mountain of horror in which he is living. In one of the best uses of the “reaction shot” I know, we see the reality of the camp cut through Guido as he confronts it. Slowly backing away, clutching Joshua, there are no jokes, no tricks. Through this scene, I think it is possible to read the rest of Guido’s actions, imperfect and dishonest as they are; as Ebert puts it, “Guido uses the only gift at his command to protect his son. If he had a gun, he would shoot at the fascists. If he had an army, he would destroy them. He is a clown, and comedy is his weapon.”
And yet, the film goes on, and we are forced to ask: How can Guido keep up his farce after experiencing such profound darkness?
“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers… The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss… in the contemplation of his beloved…
Man is never driven to moral behavior; in each instance he decides to behave morally. Man does not do so in order to satisfy a moral drive and to have a good conscience; he does so for the sake of a cause to which he commits himself, or for a person whom he loves, or for the sake of his God.”
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, examines his own imprisonment in a concentration camp during WWII, searching for that which can sustain a person’s spirit through the worst of circumstances. He finds that our resilience and joy flow from an orientation of our minds and lives towards a “beloved,” be it a cause, person, or God. The higher the beloved, the more buoyant the spirit. Most men in the concentration camp with Frankl were forced to contemplate their beloved abstractly, but Guido’s beloved was embodied in the life and spirit of his son. He committed his whole self to Joshua’s preservation, enabling him to rescue “whatever is good and hopeful from the wreckage of dreams,” to quote Ebert once again. This is an imperfect film, and yet it can offer us the opportunity to feel and reflect upon the power of a full-life commitment to a beloved.
Advent allows us the opportunity to remember that you and I have been called “Beloved” by One so committed to our preservation that He endured the worst the world (and beyond) could inflict, so that we might be free to run into the embrace of our Creator.
- How does hope function in the film? How does hope function during Advent?
- What are Guido’s primary characteristics in Act I? Do they change at all in Act II?
- Does the film go too far in it’s depiction of the Holocaust? If you have seen another Holocaust film, how do they compare/contrast?
- Is Guido justified in misleading his son? Why or why not?
- Where do you struggle to live in hope for the world?
- Do you agree that we all have a “Beloved” of some kind? How does our “Beloved” affect our capacity for hope?
Drew Masterson is the Website Editor for The Washington Institute, in addition to being an Assistant Producer with Citygate Films.