Thursday, February 28, 2008

Life is Beautiful (1997)

MOMENTS THAT LINGERED: For me, the heartstopping, "Sophie's Choice" moments in this movie came when Dora insisted that she belonged on the train leaving for the concentration camp. It was not only that she was sacrificing her own life, to share the fate of her husband and son, but the fact that there might have been some infinitesimal chance to use her wealthy family's influence to have her family spared, if she had remained free. She might possibly have been helpful to them on the outside, while hope and identity was lost once she boarded the train.

To me, Dora's decision not only evidenced her utter loyalty to her family, but showed us how entirely she had abandoned the world she had been raised with and the shallowness and prejudice it represented. She had only recently been united with her mother when Guido and Giosue were taken, but she didn't run to her mother for solace or even advice. Though her future might be crumbling, Dora no longer had a place in that past.

Instead, her feelings seemed to be that if her son and husband were being persecuted simply because they were Jewish, then she must suffer the same lot, because she was no different than they were. She felt no distinction. She would recognize no distinction. She would not allow the world to make a distinction. As Ruth pledged to Naomi, Guido's people became Dora's people. By voluntarily choosing the same lot to which her family was subjected, Dora underlined how arbitrary and irrational racism is. It was just as senseless to be spared because of lineage as it was to be gassed because of it. Dora said that she should be on that train, but so should we all. If anyone must be, then everyone should be.

Of course, the heart of the movie is the whimsical facade Guido assumes for his son, masking his full awareness of the horror. The dichotomy is never more stark than when he peers out of the train window and sees Dora getting on. His silent heartbreak, juxtaposed against Giosue's joy that Mommy will be making the trip with them.

What is most interesting is that during the brief moments when Guido is to make contact with Dora, you can tell that he would try to buoy her spirits just as he did Giosue's, given the chance, but all hope has left Dora. There is no light to be rekindled even briefly. No forgetting, no transcending the death that the imprisonment brings. When she hears Guido's voice over the loudspeaker, even learning that he and Giosue are still alive does not give her real relief. The phonograph music and Guido's voice spark memories, but only as ghosts do, reminding you of what has been lost, more than reviving the past.

After the camp is liberated, Dora is still a listless shell and is not resuscitated until she holds her happy son in her arms once more, a moment of which she had never dreamed. Guido had the fantasies. He alone held the key to possibility. Once he was gone, Dora was unable to imagine herself in any future, except the one the gas chamber would hold. Giosue's final embrace restored her in a way that mere physical release did not.

Of course, the most penetrating moment was Guido's death. It happened offscreen, which had the strange effect of maximizing rather than minimizing the impact. He performed until the end, comically marching to his fate. Surely it would take more than bullets to extinguish such a magical mind and its ever animated spirit, but cruelty levels the world without discrimination, destroying the great with the small and both as easily. Often feared as something momentous and powerful, life's culmination, is invariably a whimper, not a bang, silencing kings and paupers alike, with its anti-climatic finality and stillness. Without thought or hesitation, the end comes instantly for our hero, Guido's killer doubtlessly forgetting him before the rifle has cooled. Yet, Guido lives on, because Giosue has won the game, gets to ride in the tank and captures an even bigger prize: a reunion with Dora who is sure to hear the stories that Guido used to protect and inspire their son for decades and generations to come. Thus, life is not cheap after all. Life is beautiful.

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