Making a movie about the Holocaust is delicate enough. Making one that is humorous, too? Some would call that crazy.
Yet Italian comic star Roberto Benigni has attempted it, and his tale of a man trying wildly and creatively to shield his son from concentration camp horrors is the first unqualified hit at Cannes.At its official premiere Sunday night, the film was hailed with a ten-minute standing ovation and shouts of "Bravo!" from the audience.
Many Holocaust films try to present one of the century's darkest moment in its full scope, to show the enormity of the event. It's easy to fail in this venture, and Benigni doesn't even try.
Instead, "Life is Beautiful" is simply about one man, one woman and one child. There are concentration camp scenes and references to gas chambers. But there are no big signs in German, barely a Nazi flag, barely a swastika.
"We assume people already know about those things," says Benigni, who co-wrote, directed and starred in the film.
Benigni, revered in Italy for his highly physical comedy, is best known abroad for manic performances in Jim Jarmusch's "Down By Law" and "Night on Earth." He's been called Italy's Chaplin, but there's some Woody Allen there, too.
He plays Guido, a Jewish man who comes to a Tuscan town in 1939 to open a bookstore but can only get work as a waiter. A jokester and above all a dreamer, he sets his sights on Dora, who is engaged to a local Fascist official.
He wins her, and soon they have a little boy, Joshua. Guido seems oblivious to the rising anti-Semitism in Mussolini's Italy - until the day the family is deported to a Nazi camp.
To shield his son from the horror, Guido begins an elaborate ruse. The whole thing is a game, he tells Joshua; the first to get 1,000 points will win a great prize: a real army tank. The nasty men in uniform are just role-playing. You get points by being quiet, hiding, not asking for snacks . . .
In the movie's funniest scene, Guido pretends he speaks German when the Nazi guard asks for a translator to tell prisoners the camp rules. Each time the guard shouts out a rule, Guido comes up with his own hilarious translation, again shielding the boy from the Nazi cruelty.
As the horror grows, Guido's attempts to save his son become more desperate. The ending is not completely happy but definitely not completely sad, either.
"Life is Beautiful" has been a hit in Italy, where it has been playing since December. Miramax plans to distribute it in the United States.