So I suppose you’re going to tell me that THIS movie was manipulative too? Jeez.
It won best foreign feature Oscar against the following competitors: Central Station, Brazil; Children Of Heaven, Iran; The Grandfather, Spain; Life Is Beautiful, Italy; Tango, Argentina. It came in second at Cannes to Eternity and a Day by Angelopoulos. I don’t know anything about any of these movies. It was also nominated for best picture Oscar along with Elizabeth, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, and the winner Shakespeare in Love. What else good came out that year?
Benigni won best actor Oscar, I think mostly because he’s such a cheerful energetic character. He’s got no range in the role and his clown schtick starts to grate pretty quickly. But he IS the movie. The only scene I remembered from this movie — and I remembered it fondly — was this clip where the Benigni character plays the Offenbach aria out the window of the concentration camp canteen. Benigni was in Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, in a sketch with Stephen Wright that was pretty funny.
If Benigni’s performance is manipulative, and his performance is the movie, then… It is a rather ridiculous premise, that you can essentially keep the holocaust at bay by pretending it’s a game. Benigni gets killed only because he steps out of the game. Or maybe he fails when he tries to take his game beyond the limited boundaries of his little corner of the real world. Up to this point he’s only had to fool his son, but now he tries to fool the guards into believing he’s a woman. His disguise is pathetic: it’s as if he’s gotten so persuaded by his own imagination that he thinks he could just say he’s a woman, without any costume at all, and the Nazis would believe him.
I think the kid would have been more persuaded to stay hidden if his father had told him the truth, rather than making him believe the camp was a big contest in which the guards were just actors pretending to be mean and dangerous. Of course the guards REALLY WERE just actors in this movie, the camp REALLY WAS a stage, so there’s something strange to be considered.
Not really emphasized in the film is the idea that Nazism is itself a collective fantasy. Why would this crackpot master-race ideology become such a widespread belief system, to the point where the Nazis would systematically slaughter millions of people and engage in a world war that would kill tens of millions and bring them to defeat? Why does this ideology garner more ardent support than Guido’s fantasy that the whole thing is a game? Milgram’s infamous social psychology experiment comes to mind, where he staged a prison and randomly assigned college students to either the guards or the prisoners. Everyone played their role as if it were the real thing, to the point where the guards psychologically tortured the prisoners. Why, inversely, couldn’t the Nazis have come to the realization that the whole master-race thing was a fiction, that they had been recruited into a mass delusion? Later the Germans would come to this self-awareness: why not then? But it definitely wasn’t happening then, as Guido fatally disovered. Even at the end of the war, with the Nazis in retreat before the advancing American army, the German guard took precious time to walk Guido to another part of the camp and there to shoot him dead for impersonating a woman prisoner.
So I think there’s a meditation on socially-constructed realities happening in this movie. Guido’s idea of the game, where all the prisoners are competing with each other in order to win a tank, is no more preposterous than what was really happening. And yet the Nazi fantasy became a collective reality, to the point where it penetrated the realm of the Real, whereas Guido’s fantasy extended only as far as his son and remained fantasy.