Italy's Roberto Benigni is an acquired taste that I still haven't acquired. With his long, skinny body, his Brillo-pad hair and his bird's beak of a nose, Benigni seems to have stepped out of an old commedia dell'arte production; and he certainly has the antic, frantic energy of a modern-day harlequin. The thing is, I just don't find him all that funny. Which only added to the sense of hopelessness I felt when sitting down to watch Life Is Beautiful, Benigni's Chaplinesque comedy about the Holocaust. He already had trouble making me laugh, and now he was going to try to make me laugh about something that may be the least funny subject of our time. He failed, although many feel he's succeeded at a higher goal--demonstrating the indomitability of the human spirit. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, Life Is Beautiful tells the story of Guido (Benigni), an Italian Jew with an irrepressible zest for life. Soon after arriving in a Tuscan town to take a job as a waiter, Guido falls in love with Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni's wife), who's not Jewish but who literally falls into his arms. The movie's first half is devoted to Guido's bright-eyed, bushy-tailed courting of Dora just as the night and fog of fascism are descending upon Italy. Dora, though engaged to a proto-fascist, finally succumbs. Then we flash-forward a few years, and Guido and Dora are now the proud parents of Joshua (the ever-so-adorable Georgio Cantarini). Like all youngsters, Joshua is full of questions, except Joshua's questions are about why, for example, a store has a sign out front that says "No Jews or Dogs Allowed." Attempting to shield Joshua from the horror that's engulfing their world, Guido tells him a series of lies that, once father and son have been shipped off to a concentration camp, turn the Holocaust into an elaborate children's game. When a German soldier barks an order in German, Guido translates it for Joshua: "We play the parts of the real mean guys who yell." Alas, that's not all they do. At once light-hearted and heavy-hearted, Life Is Beautiful tries to walk a fine line between not taking the Holocaust too seriously and taking it seriously enough--a line that, if it exists in art at all, is as sharp as a razor. So is the line between laughter as a form of resistance and laughter as a form of denial. Benigni, who directed and co-wrote the script, plays down the atrocities in order to make the film even close to watchable, but in doing so he's transformed a concentration camp into something closer to a summer camp. He's turned us all into Joshuas in a game we'll never win and perhaps shouldn't be playing.
The UW's "Beijing Underground" series gets under way this weekend--four films by Chinese directors who, for all practical purposes, don't exist. Working outside the purview of the monolithic China Film Bureau, these young film artists have the luxury of not submitting their scripts for approval. On the other hand, they receive no help with production or distribution, and their films are considered "illegal." I hope to write about individual films as the series progresses, but no preview was available for this week's opener, the enticingly titled Beijing Bastards (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. at 4070 Vilas Hall). A 1993 film set in the capital city's underground rock-club scene, it was directed by Zhang Yuan, who has since directed China's first gay film, East Palace, West Palace.