October 25, 1998 [Life Is Beautiful]

A dozen years or so ago Roberto Benigni waltzed into the frame where Tom Waits took another pull on his flask and wordlessly sung a little tune to himself in Down by Law. Benigni announced, "It's a sad and beautiful world!" with such enthusiasm that Waits did the only thing he could: He told the little rubber ball to buzz off--and Benigni jotted it down in his notebook, "BUZZ-off, tenk yew, BUZZ-off," learning English the hard way--but you couldn't tell, he seemed so excited to be there, the dank swamp air like aqua vitae poured on his head or down his gullet, a Spirit maybe not Holy but wholesome, muddersmilk for the lost and lonely.

And now he says it again, Life Is Beautiful, and what an outrage he is, bounding across the death camp yard like Chaplin--no; dare I write more than Chaplin could ever have hoped, his Great Dictator transformed into a swelling orchestra of Some Fine Day, the hitlerian style stolen like fire from that damned paperhanger's mouth and poured like cool molten gold across the darkening map of poor old doomed Europe.

But it didn't take, of course, Charlie's spell to break the swastika into kindling--so there's poor Benigni trying to convince his son that the evil of body-accountancy is a game, no complaining allowed, just follow orders and you will be rewarded.  Where the hell is Chaplin to save the little boy? He'd done the same for other children for years, one time and another; but now it's up to the little bouncing Italian Jew with the nimble watchful eye to play dress-up and scamper like a Little Tramp right into the alley where a quick controlled burst blows away everything except my tears watching a movie no father can bear--it hurt to watch, like a heart attack making me numb and breathless--and it didn't help to turn away: the little dope's too-big smile hung in the air long after he was gone, curving like an upside-down sunrise around the little boy still alive, shining a light on the life they had before, the whole first half of the movie, beautiful and magical as a silent comedy where everything falls, but right into place.

And in the second half I found myself still laughing at Benigni at work, like the other Tramp in Modern Times--but this time it's anvils--who carries goddamn anvils with his bare hands, who is made to do such a ridiculous thing? Only a slapstick hero, his constant grin as strained as his little muscles showing the effort as "the random grim forge" waits for him.


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