Life Is Beautiful and Roberto Benigni’s Shamelessness
There are some movies that I refuse to see. Some of them have to do with genre — I’ve never been a fan of horror — or some by director — Michael Bey’s entire oeuvre has never been one I wanted. But there are some films that appall mainly because I have never been unable to understand how, any time in the process no one said that this was a bad idea.
Life is Beautiful is one such example. I can’t understand how Roberto Benigni, even given the star power he had in his native Italy, was able to find funding for a film which featured an Italian Jew who gets married and has a child just prior to World War II, is taken by the Nazis into a concentration camp, and then spends all his time making the experience delightful for his young son, turning it into a game. Did no one at any time even suggest to Benigni, whose father died in a concentration camp even though the son was not Jewish himself, that this might not be the best idea for a movie?
Leaving aside that the film was made, that Harvey Weinstein decided that this was perfect for American, strikes me as wondering why no one questioned his character then — as a film producer, as a Jew, or hell, as a human being. Yet Weinstein not only bought the picture for Miramax, he put Benigni front and center to sell it. (I’ll get to that monstrosity in a minute.)
Now first of all, leaving aside the film’s appallingly high rating at imdb.com (it currently ranks 25th all time) most critics at the time were openly disgusted by the film. While Siskel and Ebert both raved about it and put it on their top ten lists (an aberration for both men) the lion’s share of film critics were repulsed by the subject, by the writing and performances, and basically every aspect of the film — the ridiculousness of the early scenes, how the camp that the characters get thrown in is the ‘cleanest concentration camp’ you’ve ever seen, and the maudlin behavior of every aspect of it. At least one major critic put it bluntly: ‘Life is Beautiful made me want to throw up.” Benigni would wave off almost every criticism by saying the movie was ‘a fable’. I’m not sure what the moral of this fable was supposed to be.
Benigni made the talk show circuits and Hollywood media conferences taking on the persona of the clichéd Italian buffoon. At the Cannes Film Festival upon the film taking the jury prize, he bowed at Martin Scorcese’s feet and kissed his shoes. On talk shows, he would gallop onto stages, stomp on desks and babble in extraordinarily broken English while fellow guests looked on alarmingly. It was performance art from beginning to end, and indeed during the process of promoting the film Benigni would give the game away when he was interviewed on 60 Minutes he spoke seriously and in flawless English.
Now I know that Hollywood is a town that loves great performances and its clear that Benigni’s act promoting Life is Beautiful was a masterpiece far outdoing his actual performance is Life Is Beautiful. But that performance actually bothers me less than Weinstein’s promotion of this travesty until it became one of the highest grossing foreign films of all time — $57 million in 1998 dollars. It was a comedy that was not funny, and a tearjearker that was as mechanical in jerking tears as a Harlequin romance, and somehow that was enough to launch the monstrosity into Oscar talk for Best Picture.
What makes this more appalling was while this was going on another foreign film with crossover was also making a transition: Walter Salles’ Central Station. A much darker film with a more uplifting story, the moving center on Dora (Fernanda Montenegro) a dour old woman working in a rail mailing station who begins to come out of her shell due to her interaction with a 9 year old boy who has never met his father. The film and Montenegro were highly praised and the film managed to gross well for a foreign film, though not nearly as well as Life as Beautiful. Salles, a Brazilian director who unlike Benigni would have crossover success in America later on, admitted: “This is not a fable.”
The critics reaction in the end of year awards was a hard pass to the promotion of Life is Beautiful: it didn’t win a single foreign film award. Central Station took the top prize from the National Board of Review, Thomas Vintenberg’s The Celebration took the top prizes from LA and New York, and Abbas Kuristiomi A Taste of Cherry took the National Society of Film Critics Prize. Benigni won nothing from any of the critics, while Montenegro took the Best Actress prize from the National Board and LA and led in the early balloting in New York, until in a shock move they gave it to Cameron Diaz for There’s Something About Mary. Nor was there any redemption at the Globes: due what was considering a ‘rules conflict’ Life is Beautiful was deemed ineligible for Best Foreign Film while Central Station took the top prize.
None of this made a difference when the nominations came out: Life is Beautiful became the first film nominated for Best Foreign Film and Best Picture since Costas Gavras’ Z in 1969. Central Station was nominated for Best Foreign Film and Best Actress, but hardly anyone noticed. Very quickly Montenegro’s front runner status was pushed behind the move for Gwyneth Paltrow for Shakespeare in Love.
Benigni received nominated for Best Director and Best Actor, which was fairly appalling when you consider the four other nominees in the category: Ian McKellen for Gods and Monsters, Tom Hanks for Saving Private Ryan, Nick Nolte for Affliction and Edward Norton for the very dark American History X, a surprise nomination at the time that looks far better in hindsight. If the level of performance should have stood for anything, McKellen and Nolte should have the clear frontrunners — the two had split all the major Best Actor awards up to that point. And not even Weinstein would dare to say that Benigni’s performance was anywhere near their level. The reason everyone seemed to believe he should win because of ‘aura’ or ‘personality’ which is ridiculous on the face of it and when you consider the personalities of McKellen, Nolte and even Tom Hanks its fairly ludicrous. (Hanks was even then beloved among Hollywood, McKellen has a very dry and British wit and despite his troubles with the law, Nolte is an actual eccentric not a manufactured one like Benigni.)
It actually looks worse when you consider some of the other actors and performers whose slot Benigni probably took: Jim Carrey for The Truman Show, who despite his clownish persona has an infinitely greater acting range than Benigni could ever hope for; Warren Beatty for Bulworth, the dark political satire that marked his last truly great film and in other years would have been considered a comeback story; Joseph Fiennes for Shakespeare in Love, the one actor from the cast Weinstein seemed to go out of his way not to promote for a nomination, and John Travolta’s work in two different studio releases, Primary Colors, where he gave a spot on imitation of then President Clinton and A Civil Action, where he played a corporate attorney trying to win a major class action.