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Italian Film on Holocaust Draws Crowds, Controversy

February 5, 1998
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The current film hit by one of Italy’s favorite comic actors is a moving — and, at times, hilarious — fable about love, suffering and survival that is largely set in a Nazi death camp.

Since opening a week before Christmas, “La Vita e’ Bella” (Life is Beautiful) has packed cinemas across Italy and taken in more than $20 million.

At the same time, it has sparked widespread debate among Jews and no-Jews alike about the manner in which the Holocaust can — or should — be portrayed on film.

But Jewish actor Moni Ovadia liked it so much that he declared non-Jewish comedian Roberto Benigni, who directed, co-wrote and starred in the movie, “an honorary Jew.”

In the film, Benigni, with his trademark wild hair, receding chin and manic style, plays Guido, an Italian Jew in the Tuscan town of Arezzo. In the late 1930s, Guido falls in love with, courts and marries Dora, a non-Jewish woman. They have a son whom they name Giosue.

Suddenly, without warning, on the boy’s 5th birthday, Guido and Giosue are deported by German occupiers to a Nazi death camp. Dora demands — and is allowed — to be deported with them.

Dora and Giosue come through the ordeal alive. Guido becomes one of the 6 million.

Benigni’s account of how Guido ensures his son’s survival is the crux of the film — and of the controversy surrounding it.

From the beginning, Guido decides to protect Giosue by convincing him that the deportation, the death camp and all the horrors around them are obstacles in a strange, exciting game.

Benigni’s antics in maintaining this make-believe are sometimes hilarious. But a clearly conveyed sense of desperation permeates the gags. It is clear that Guido is walking a tightrope — one false step and all will be lost.

It is a powerful demonstration of the love of a father for his child — and the trust of a child in his father.

The first half of the movie is a screwball comedy that sets up Guido’s character as a romantic jokester and also presents him as a perfectly integrated Italian everyman, no different from anyone else. In one hilarious scene he impersonates a fascist bureaucrat and uses himself as an example of the Aryan ideal.

There is no indication that Guido is Jewish until halfway into the film, when an anti-Semitic slogan suddenly — and shockingly — appears.

“I wanted to portray a Jew who was not recognized by precise signs, but who was the same as I am,” Benigni told the Rome Jewish monthly Shalom. “I wanted the audience to ask themselves, why are they deporting Benigni, how could they take even him? [Guido] is a Jew who lives his life, who is not involved in politics, who does his job and then suddenly down comes this ax that smashes his life, just as it really happened.”

Italy’s leading research center on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism was an adviser on the film, as were several Holocaust survivors.

Response to the movie within the 30,000-strong Italian Jewish community has been warm, but divided.

“I found it a very moving film,” political scientist Franco Pavoncello said in an interview after a screening of the film for the Rome Jewish community. “It is an allegorical fable about basic human sentiments that exist even in the face of the tragedy of the Holocaust.”

But Daniel Vogelmann, who runs an Italian Jewish publishing house, asked, “Can you write fables about Auschwitz?”

Vogelmann, the son of an Auschwitz survivor, criticized the film for not portraying the death camp and its conditions — or the pre-war fascist climate — realistically enough.

Shlomo Venezia, who spent 10 months in Auschwitz and consulted on the film said this critique missed the point of the film.

“The film as a whole works, particularly for the Italian mind,” Venezia said in an interview after the screening for Rome’s Jewish community. “You could never show on film just what Auschwitz was really like. For someone who didn’t live through it, I think that the Benigni film can have a greater effect than `Schindler’s List.’ For me, `Schindler’s List’ seemed impossible.”

Several people in the Jewish community suggested that the film could be used in schools as a teaching tool about the Holocaust, but said that it would have to be shown in conjunction with supplementary educational material.

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