CV admits to great trepidation about seeing this movie. We have powerful feelings about the holocaust. A comedy about the holocaust? Sounds like a mistake from the getgo, no? Still, the word of mouth has been very good so we decided to take a chance.
We were delightfully surprised. Mr. Benigni has made a funny, pointed, and bittersweet film about an Italian Jewish family who are sent to a death camp. Never for a minute did we feel that it patronized the fate of those for whom this was life experience, not fiction. Rather, our hero, a waiter by trade and a vaudeville comic by nature, uses his sense of humor and his powerful imagination to create an alternate reality for his young son at the camp and, by doing so, saves the boy’s life.
The boy in question, as played by Giorgio Cantarini, could not be more endearing, exhibiting the credulity of a child trusting and believing the father he loves, as Benigni spins ever more fantastic imaginary games to protect him. The wife and mother is played by Nicoletta Braschi with great charm, nicely underplayed as both foil and "straight man" for Benigni. Benigni himself is a wonder, incredibly energetic and endlessly inventive, as writer (with Vincenzo Cerami), director, and star of the film.
About half the movie takes place before the deportation. The story leads us through Benigni’s courting of Braschi, itself a nicely thought out and romantic series of events. There is a fair share of foreshadowing of the growing fascist ugliness, some of which provides great opportunity for Benigni to exercise his satirical wit in surprisingly effective ways.
Most of all, Benigni manages to sustain a consistent tone throughout the film. It is light and funny when appropriate, without in any way making light of the horrors in the camps. It is warm and even loving without being cloying or spilling over into easy sentimentality. Nobody who knows a shred of this history could comfortably sit and watch if the history was being trivialized. Benigni does not do so here. The man is a genius; he took on a massively challenging concept that was risky in the extreme and he made it work, hands down. Bravo!