In his latest repulsive film, Roberto Benigni trots out the formula that served him so well in Life Is Beautiful -- a backdrop of real-life terror, and a self-inflating display of self-effacing love. In the Oscar-winning Beautiful, the backdrop was the Holocaust; in The Tiger and the Snow, it's the Iraq war. The difference is a matter of degree -- in Life, Benigni did not entirely upstage the horrors around him; in Tiger, however, he swallows them whole.
Life Is Beautiful was exhausting enough -- after I was done crying, I felt as if my soul had been wrung out like an old snotrag. Centering on a man (Benigni, who also wrote and directed) trying to protect his son from the horrors of a concentration camp by pretending it's all a game , the film was billed as a "simple fable." But Life Is Beautiful had none of the hands-off aspect the word "simple" might imply -- Benigni did everything but mace viewers in the face to get them to start bawling. And if a fable is a tale told to point out a truth, Life was the opposite. It added more artifice -- tender fictions about the redemptive and humanizing power of fantasy, yes, but ones that ruthlessly infantilized viewers as much as they did his son. As the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek wrote, "Just as the father constructs a protective fiction to render the reality of the concentration camp bearable for his son, is not Benigni too treating the audience as children to be protected from the horror of the holocaust through a sentimental and funny fiction?" In the end, who can shield our eyes from suffering? Not even God.
In Life, at least, viewers could make out the contours of the terror -- the camp was a significant, inexorable player in the drama. As Tiger's romantic martyr, however, Benigni has upped his donkey-charm and blots out anything except his megalomaniac performance. He grins, he hee-haws and brays great gouts of words, he whirls as if he has an army of red ants down his pants, he appears too often without said pants, he gabbles an endless song of himself even in his sleep. O assy clown-god -- is this what unconditional love looks like? Hell is preferable. The damned are better -- quieter -- company.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Director/writer/star Benigni casts himself as poetry teacher Attilio, a creative idiot savant who capers around his Italian classroom and shouts things like, "It's lying down that you see the sky." His students, instead of snarling into their coffee or sticking their iPod earphones back in as real kids might, are prone to bursts of spontaneous applause at such pearls. Indeed, everyone in this film gazes upon Benigni's sound and fury with wet eyes of adoration. Everyone, that is, except Attilio's unfortunate stalkee, the luminous Vittoria (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni's real-life wife and producer), whom Attilio has recurring dreams of marrying.
Vittoria is in the midst of writing a book about the Iraqi poet Fuad (sad-eyed Jean Reno, sadly misused here), and she follows him back to his home in Baghdad for more interviews. When Fuad calls Attilio to tell him that Victoria has been severely injured in a bombing raid, Attilio scams his way into Iraq by pretending to be a highly trained doctor on a medical mission. Cue shenanigans.
Attilio nearly blows himself to bits in a minefield, nearly gets blown to bits by American forces, dashes around the besieged city trying to get vital medicines for his beloved, who lies in a coma -- perhaps accidentally on purpose, one might say -- to escape her orally incontinent suitor.
Tiger is earning knocks for its Iraq setting -- bad taste, it seems. Good comedy, however, is so often about taking a crap on the idea of propriety that a critique merely on those grounds seems like purse-lipped prudery. But good comedy also takes serious issues seriously before it drops trou. Unfortunately, Benigni is so fond of literally parading around pantless that he doesn't have time to take in much of Iraq, let alone satirize the outside world's involvement there. Nor does Tiger amount to a louder version of Albert Brooks's failed but at least thoughtful Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. Benigni cannot attempt the ironic meta-myopia that Brooks aspired to -- the Italian is so relentlessly sincere, and so narcissistic, that viewers can't see or hear around him.
Benigni's specialty is a smothering kind of love. Any father would want to protect his son's innocence as Benigni's character did in Life is Beautiful. But should a good director deny his characters and his audiences a confrontation with the evil -- banal or metaphysical, take your pick -- the Holocaust has come to represent? It's a giant missed opportunity, one deliberately passed by. Why settle for the son's voiceover, thanking his father for the life-saving charade? Why not show the psychological revelation, the discovery of the father's heartbreaking lie? Benigni isn't interested in that epiphany, the shattering process of maturity, or a conscious confrontation with darkness. He fills the void of the unspeakable with even more meaningless sound.
Similarly, Tiger misses its chance at becoming more than the sum of its gruesome parts. The film comes with a twist, one so sweet that it gives the film a bit of last-minute grace. It's the one time that Benigni, faced with the choice between the ostentatious and the quiet, goes for the softer choice. Would that he had chosen so more often. But as it is, the only thing to be grateful for is the hush after the movie's end -- the blessed terror of silence, signifying nothing.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.
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