SPOILER ALERT!! If you have not seen the movie Life Is Beautiful, for Pete's sake, stop reading now!
Life is Beautiful is a powerful film, wholly original, hilarious, confounding, heartbreaking and life-affirming. One of our family's favorites.
A fellow Chesterton Academy faculty member hosts informal faculty/student movie nights at his house during the summer, grilling burgers and showing great movies on the side of his garage as it gets dark. Really fun, in spite of the mosquitos. Life is Beautiful was one of the films featured a few weeks ago.
It's the kind of movie that sparks conversation, and afterward there was some discussion. There was some sadness and disappointment at the death of the hero, some effort to wrap the brain around a holocaust-themed comedy, and there was the observation (from a noted and frank young skeptic) that the movie asks us to *applaud* the fact that a boy is lied to, deceived by the hero (his father) throughout the whole tale. This deception is presented in the movie as not just excusable but admirable.
It took seeing the movie a second time (I'm thick that way) to understand that the title really is key to the whole thing. Life IS beautiful. But the experiences depicted through much of the movie are not beautiful, they are brutal and deeply saddening. The principle characters - the father, Guido (an Italian Jew), mother (Dora) and son (Joshua) - are wrenched from their beautiful life, loaded on a boxcar and taken to a Nazi concentration camp. "Life is beautiful"? How can one work up the cajones to say that out loud in Auschwitz or Birkenau?
From the moment the family is loaded on the train, Guido convinces Joshua (perhaps aged 5 or 6) that the entire scenario is a game, a kind of contest. Everyone is there voluntarily (they were lucky to get tickets!) and whoever ends up with the most points wins a Real Tank. Through sheer comic inventiveness - driven by desperation - Guido successfully hides the Brutal Truth from his son... or does he? The question turns on one's notion of truth. Is truth more than mere fact-hood? For Guido, the answer is obviously "yes".
"Life is Beautiful" is the lesson, the point, the one truth that Guido lives, and ultimately dies, to vouchsafe to Joshua. He believes it. He knows it is the Truth, and that the Nazis, the Third Reich, the concentration camp itself is The Lie. It is a black lie, a blasphemy and an affront to the truth of the beauty of life, and Guido will not let it win, will not let it claim his son's innocence. In the end, he saves Joshua not only from physical death, but from the spiritual death of despair. He shields him from this colossal lie by weaving an elaborate myth, an alternative reality - almost a fairy tale - that gives the events a different meaning.
I doubt that the Church could officially condone such a shading of the facts, but I can't begin to imagine Guido being condemned, either. The Truth is on his side, even if the facts are not. In the long view, the Nazis are playing a game, a vain, pointless game wherein the most important things are devalued, and petty, temporal things like guns and tanks and barbed wire are given false importance, like game tokens. The concentration camp is the elaborate lie. Guido's fairy tale narrative is the Truth breaking through the only way it can.
I haven't said much about the beautiful mother, Dora, but she is clearly the North Star for both Joshua and Guido. She is their great hope and their goal.
Guido (very near the end, carrying Joshua) "You are such a good boy. You sleep now. Dream sweet dreams. Maybe we are both dreaming. Maybe this is all a dream, and in the morning, Mommy will wake us up with milk and cookies. Then, after we eat, I will make love to her two or three times. If I can."
Guido is finally vindicated when the concentration camp is liberated, Joshua reunited with his mother, and the entire episode is seen as an interruption, a fever dream, that temporarily disrupted the beauty of life, even as it left a scar. But Guido's sacrifice makes his death also beautiful.
The principle argument against the movie's point of view is predicated on the belief that life is not beautiful, that it is in fact "brutish and short", and that when Guido shields his son from the horror of the concentration camp, he shields him from the reality of life and does him no favors. Life is not black on white, but white on black. Better that Joshua should be disillusioned early on, and not put his trust in life.
But Guido has it right, and Life is Beautiful.