The awful thing about making a Holocaust movie today is that so many worthwhile screen treatments of this time of persecution already exist, a filmmaker is exceptionally hard-pressed to break new ground, or find a special reason to revisit it. The honorable motivation, of promoting each new generation of directors and audiences to come into contact with this essential chapter in human history, has to be balanced with the concern that the search for fresh angles of approach, and unknown material to treat, can yield quirkiness, trivialization, misguided irony, and cynicism. Fortunately, Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful staves off those possibilities. While his film explores an area of the Holocaust seldom talked about, and offers an unusual, almost absurdist bent on fascist terror, his unconventionality doesn't come at the price of a single drop of humanity.

In 1939, Guido (Benigni), a loopy, happy-go-lucky itinerant, arrives in the town Arezzo with his pal Ferruccio (Sergio Bustric). Immediately, Guido applies to city hall for a permit to open a bookstore-and is summarily turned down. Disappointed but not dejected, he takes a job as a waiter at a restaurant that his uncle (Giustino Durano) works at. About the only success Guido is making in town at the outset is with Dora (Nicoletta Braschi). Although she's engaged, he's instantly smitten by her and, both by and in spite of his own will, he keeps popping up beside her. Whenever he meets her, whether he means to or not, she's delighted by his surprise visits. Dora, no fool, lets this persistent and ambitious apparition sweep her off her feet. Cut to several years later: Guido has Dora, he has his store, a delightful home and a charming son, Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini). The only thing Guido doesn't have is the cooperation of the state authorities, because he's Jewish, and Italy is beginning to toe the line propounded by Hitler.

In short order, Guido and Joshua are rounded up by soldiers and deported along with hundreds of other Jews in cattle cars to a concentration camp. Dora, though not Jewish, heroically insists on boarding the train with the captives in order to remain close to her family. Guido is a sprighty, unpredictable man, but he has a simple heart. His first instinct is to shield Joshua from the imponderably grim circumstances that are quickly stacking up. He comes up with an idea that is brilliant and ridiculous at the same time: He spells out to Joshua that they are involved in an elaborate but harmless game, in which the men in uniforms (the German prison guards) are 'baddies' who, if they succeeed at making Joshua cry, will take away points from his tally. If he accumulates enough points, though, he will win a tank. Guido doesn't make an ad hoc explanation, but more intelligently-and also disturbingly-offers a whole alternative reality to Joshua. Forced into conditions so unrecognizable and inhuman, though, looking upon the imprisonment as make-believe strangely makes sense.

A shift in perspective on the entire world, Guido believes, can help the boy cope and, as the father learns, give him a chance to survive; word gets around that children and the elderly are the first to go in the ovens. As both Guido and Joshua gather more information about the camp, Guido invents new kinks in the game to cover for the illusion he spins: Joshua is to receive points by hiding in the dormitory each day and not making a sound; bits of news that Joshua receives about 'cooking children' are actually tall tales that, if he believes them, will diminish his score. Courageously, rashly and humorously, the impulsive father keeps up his magician's act for his son.

Given that one character imparting a fantasy to another makes the difference between life and death, and lies at the heart of the story, Life would have made an unforgivable contradiction if it had sought to establish a realistic touch for the camp. Furthermore, Benigni has gone on record as saying about the conditions of Jewish incarceration, 'You can't show unimaginable horror.' The director, with Danilo Donati (the most prestigious art director Italy has produced), has constructed a sort of phantom prison-believable, but with nondescript, mythic, dream-like touches, and surrounded by fog. It's appalling enough, but it could reside as much inside one's head as in concrete reality. Wisely, Benigni averts the opposite sin, of making us complicit in the child's dreamworld, as well. Placing the film from the point of view of Joshua, while tempting because it might give Life added poignancy, would have robbed the camp of its traumatic impact. Benigni constantly proffers, then rips apart, an illusion, engaging us with the son's irreal fancy, and bringing us back to what the father knows for sure.

The pace of Life is manic even for a Benigni film-it's much faster than The Monster, and it makes Non Ci Resta Che Piangere seem languid-but it fits his character's pinwheel personality, and his urgency to impart his wishes to those he loves, first Dora and later Joshua. As usual, the chemistry between Benigni and Braschi, the co-star of all his films, is sublime and, at root, innocent. As a director, he treats her as though she is his Giulietta Masina, not a perfect beauty but an inspirational, sparkling lady-only, unlike Fellini, he has the opportunity to walk on camera and perform with her, as well. Benigni brings to the screen information about Italian Jews in World War II that needed to be conveyed; his humor helps prevent didacticism, but it certainly doesn't interfere with the material's dignity. The only thing approached lightly here, really, is the boy's wide-eyed imagination.

--Peter Henné