It is a time-honored tradition for religious and spiritual people to debate and discuss why a loving, all-powerful God would create a world of endless violence, suffering and tragedy which is so often endured by the innocent and the Godly, not just by the ‘wicked.” One version of this question is explored in Rabbi Harold Kushner’s influential book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
At the apex of this question is the agonizing extreme, How could a God of love create or permit slavery, mass suicide, the plague, and genocide? Whatever your answer, a more in-your-face practical second question derives from the first: When such adversity comes to you, or your family, or to people you care about, what do you do about it? The question then becomes, How do “good” people handle “bad” things? In the context of this series of blogs about indigenous spirituality, the question might be restated as, How do spiritual people handle sustained, intense adversity?
If we agree that being a Jewish captive in a 1940’s Nazi concentration camp epitomizes such adversity, then two substantial answers spring readily to mind. The first is chronicled in Viktor Frankl’s celebrated book, Man’s Search for Meaning. The second is contained in film director, Roberto Benigni’s, 1998 tragicomic feature film Life is Beautiful. Both Frankl and Benigni illustrate that man’s indigenous spirituality cannot be extinguished even in the worst of circumstances, although Frankl’s work is non-fiction since he experienced life in a Holocaust concentration camp first-hand. Benigni’s fictional account is dramatically enacted albeit inspired by the real experiences of his father and others in his Italian community who also lived in Nazi concentration camps.
Both the book and the film provide role models who somehow sustain a positive attitude despite facing ruthless oppressors in a surround of horror, disease, and despair. Although I strongly recommend Frankl’s and Kushner’s books, this blog series is primarily devoted to electronic media so I wish to discuss and possibly introduce you to Life is Beautiful.
To my view, Benigni’s film is in the running for one of the greatest movies of all time. Indeed, at the Academy Awards in 1999, the feature film took home the Best Foreign Film and Best Actor award for Benigni himself. Life is Beautiful became highly influential and also controversial since to some it seemed to treat horrific suffering in a light and almost dismissive way.
Indeed, you can see how Holocaust survivors and sympathizers might be outraged when hearing that a film used a concentration camp as the setting for sustained comedy. But after actually screening the film many felt differently and indeed Life is Beautiful was nominated for and received awards in many of the countries where Hitler had aggressively triumphed.
Once you get past hearing that this is a comedy about the Holocaust, it is possible to discover that Life Is Beautiful is a potent inspirational work that can change lives and aim a light through the darkness. Benigni plays a Jewish Italian man who is imprisoned in a concentration camp with his young son. To shelter the lad from the atrocities of the camp, Benigni’s character tells him that they are engaged in an elaborate game with strict rules. Naturally, the Nazi officers and guards are portrayed as the game leaders and referees. In one hilarious scene, the father deliberately mistranslates the words of a German guard to sustain the illusion of harmlessness for his son.
At the heart of the film, there are many messages which parallel Victor Frankl’s courageous perspective. These include 1) while a person can be stripped of their possessions, position, and comfort, he can never be stripped of human dignity and purpose, 2) worship, higher connection, and meaning may be known even in the direst circumstances, 3) no matter how self-centered one’s oppressor, one may continue to serve others—in Benigni’s case, he serves his son and other inmates, and 4) we may not know why God allows bad things to happen to good people, but we can continue to model good things as good people until the ‘bad’ people and things sow the seeds of their destruction.
Hence, Life is Beautiful despite the controversy and its uncomfortable setting. It suggests that no matter how dismal our situation, we possess the tools of victory—humor, perspective, persistence, purpose, and especially for Frankl, our Divine connection. Hence the title Life is Beautiful is not only ironic and shocking but by the film’s end, it is also both true and profound.
Ultimately, Benigni’s masterpiece conforms to history and the main character is indeed killed by S.S. guards who tyrannize the prisoners. And before his death, the father and son stumble upon a near mountain of corpses which brings a sobering shock to an audience who is by now expecting more Benigni charm and punchlines.
So the film is aptly called tragicomedy. There is an attempt to see the humor in even the worst moments of life. Yet realistically, when the primary character is killed, tragedy momentarily seems to erase all comedy before we realize that the film ultimately transcends and inspires. It is neither tragedy nor comedy once the credits roll, but rather, as one contemplates its meaning, the film fits the genre I call “victory.” Benigni’s spirit lives on in his family and legacy as a magician who could make gourmet lemonade out of rotting lemons.
Ultimately Life is Beautiful is the highest form of inspiration. It is the non-didactic answer to all those who say “Yes, I can be spiritual on a nice day but if you were in my shoes, and suffered from my situation on most days, how could you possibly stay spiritual.” It is also an answer to the question “what if innocent children chronically suffer? “ Again Benigni shows, rather than tells the answer—an answer which might translate as “serve them. protect them. love them, no matter what.”
Although no doubt we pray that nothing like the Holocaust will come again, we have been shown the answer about what to do when “bad things happen to good people” and when children are among the casualties. Serve them. Protect them. Love them. No matter what. And the tools for countering adversity—perspective, humor, persistence, and upward connection—have been demonstrated through the most lovable of characters.
When Benigni won his Oscars, he shocked and delighted the Hollywood world by rising to stand upon his seat and applaud the audience. The moment was so powerful that in the following year when Benigni became a presenter at the same awards, comedian and host Billy Crystal stood behind him with a large net as if to protect the audience from any over-the-top Benigni antics.
But for many in the audience, Benigni’s joyous celebration was no joke. For a moment he stood tall as if to say “spirit has triumphed” not only over the cynicism of Hollywood critics, the controversy surrounding the film’s history, and Benigni’s doubts about being acknowledged outside of his native Italy. In a way, like the Allies, he had posthumously defeated the humorless immoral Third Reich all over again with his own effervescent and victorious spirit. Whether it could be articulated at the moment or not, many sensed it was a media moment of good people outliving and transcending bad things. Whatever “bad things” had happened to “good people” somehow an all-powerful Spirit had moved through to victory.
Seldom have I devoted an entire blog to just one media narrative. When I do, it is because I sense the film partakes of eternal wisdom and spirit which should not be missed—in this case despite the unsettling realism of the topic and the bittersweet ending.
As humanity, we cannot escape the reality of pain, death, and human nature at its worst. But we can reveal a more divine angelic nature no matter what our setting. Ultimately, we can reveal in our living that life is beautiful. And although Benigni only had 116 minutes to reveal his victory, we have every moment within a lifetime.