Art, Morality, and the Holocaust: The Aesthetic Riddle of Benigni's Life is Beautiful
Casey Haskins article, “Art, Morality, and the Holocaust: The Aesthetic Riddle of Benigni’s Life is Beautiful” analyzes the film’s impact on the philosophy of aesthetics as its controversial depiction of the Holocaust both in its humorous narrative style and its unrealistic representation of the concentration camp was the cause of much uproar. Haskin points to the controversy as proof that the film, whether praised or rejected, raises significant questions about the postmodern perception of the philosophy of aesthetic and urges its critics to revisit more traditional themes.
Haskin first highlights the film’s genre, what he deems “tragicomedy”, as a point of contention for critics. First, the film’s narrative style is that of a fictional fable, told in the adult voice of Giouse, Guido’s young and only son in the film. Critics believe that this approach to the narrative is irresponsible as the severity of the Holocaust warrants the moral reality that can only be elicited from sociohistorical fact. One critic Haskin highlights is David Denby of the New Yorker who criticizes the film’s misrepresentation of the Holocaust claiming Benigni wanted “authority not actuality” of the Holocaust and that the story is really “Holocaust-denial.” Haskin claims aesthetic as representations date back to Western Philosophers such as Plato whose cave allegory likened human experience to that of prisoners compelled to watch moving images on a wall and similarly, the film’s depiction of concentration camps isn’t supposed to be literal. Moreover, Haskin charges that there is no real criterion for measuring the realism of any depiction of the Holocaust.
Haskin further analyzes the film’s self-reflexive humor as an aesthetic that can represent the morality and give insight into the characters’ psychology. He categorizes two types of humor in the film: Italian social and political satire and Holocaust humor analyzing them according to various theories of humor.
Finally, Haskin shifts to an analysis of the self-reflexivity of art as an indifference to political and social rule or a negation of dominant rule. He points to the opposing philosophies of Adorno and Nietzsche on the purpose of art, “please or instruct”, “playful or profound” in order to suggest that while the critics of the film may lack a cohesive stance on the film and art in general, they do ignite a debate about the self-reflexivity of the film as art. In sum, when analyzed according to these models, Life is beautiful “has reference to the specific wishes fears and historical beliefs of a particular cultural moment.”