Tears for a clown

Roberto Benigni's film <em>La Vita e Bella </em>jokes its way through the Holocaust. But Francine St

Laughter and fear linked: official. Or as official as research at the University of California can be. We laugh when we perceive a danger that subsequently turns out to be a false alarm, according to recent findings by one Professor V S Ramachandran. Or as James Thurber put it 40 years ago, with a nod to Wordsworth, humour is emotional chaos remembered in tranquillity.

But what if the alarm isn't false? Roberto Benigni's much lauded film La Vita e Bella (Life is Beautiful) is set in Italy. It starts in 1939 in Tuscany - all gentle slopes and diffused sunlight. It ends in a concentration camp. Throughout, the Benigni character, Guido, clowns his way through romance and terror with equal animation.

A dreamer who wants to open a bookshop, Guido meets and wins, by a series of improbable sight-gags, a local beauty who is both rich and a teacher in the local school. She's played by Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni's wife and regular co-star. Guido is Jewish (although Benigni is not). The bigotry that dogs their courtship soon turns to organised persecution. They marry and have a child - for a while all is well, in a fragile way, until the authorities come for him. And then the clowning really starts.

Guido refuses to play along with the regime. To ease his son through the horror of the camp, he pretends the whole thing is a game, played to absurd rules. If the child stays hidden, if he doesn't complain, if he doesn't miss his mama, then he might win a ride in a real tank. His father dies laughing.

Benigni has described the film as a fable. A cautionary subtitle has been inserted in the US by the distributors, indicating it should not be viewed as a representation of reality. Much is made of the fairy-tale romance of the first half, in contrast to the misery of the camp.

The tribute to Chaplin is clear. Benigni even resembles him, slight and rubber-limbed; he does not so much meet Braschi as she falls on him - a typical beginning for a Chaplin romance. She, in turn, with her wide eyes and grave expression, is a Paulette Goddard foil for the frantic little clown. In the early scenes in Abruzzo there's a heavy whose hat he repeatedly steals. ("What are your politics?" Guido asks him. "Hey," says the big guy, distracted by his twin sons fighting on the sofa, "Benito, Adolfo, cut it out.")

Guido dares, he invents, he pushes his jokes to the border of danger - and beyond. But do we laugh? Only occasionally, in my case. For me, Chaplin is painful, beautifully observed and executed, wonderfully imaginative - but not funny. Guido isn't funny either, although he does have moments of impossible, implausible charm. In a foolhardy attempt to speak to the girl, he impersonates a local fascist official and (a direct echo of Chaplin's The Great Dictator) makes a speech to children about Aryan superiority, stripping off his clothes to reveal a puny body, with the tricolore sash of office worn over his shoulder and between his legs like a nappy.

There's a surreal moment when a huge cake in the shape of a camel ("Ethiopian style") is brought shoulder-high into an engagement party. In the camp, there's a perfectly timed irony where the prospect of reprieve appears briefly but turns out to be, in every sense, a very bad joke. But for the most part, La Vita e Bella is excruciating - a word Benigni himself uses - as we watch the father's increasingly frantic attempts to disguise the inevitable. In a recent interview Benigni talked of the fear that clowns can inspire, of their need to control. This is what Guido does. He sets up a parallel system in an attempt to save his five-year-old son. He uses humour as an act of dissent. It's an irrational and dangerous technique but, under the circumstances, who could condemn it?

That seems to have been the verdict in Israel, where the film won Best Jewish Film Experience at the Jerusalem Festival. It also picked up the Grand Jury prize at Cannes and eight Oscar equivalents in Italy. Amazingly, there has been broad support among Jews for this non-Jew's eccentric account of the Holocaust, with only occasional accusations of trivial-isation or insensitivity.

Benigni has professed that his aim is to reach a peak of tragedy where laughter and weeping collide. Jerry Lewis tried something similar nearly 30 years ago with his film of a clown in a concentration camp. It remains unreleased, tangled in litigation. Reports of it suggest a grotesque mawkishness that might provoke nervous laughter. Benigni certainly doesn't avoid mawkishness in La Vita e Bella, but he's inclined to knock it down again seconds later.

Whether or not you approve of the result, Roberto Benigni has transgressed the usual artistic convention in depiction of the Holocaust - a certain grieving restraint. Maybe this departure denotes a new compassion and sincerity; maybe it's a sentimental muddle. I don't want to see this film again. But, three days after the viewing, I wish it would leave me alone.

"Life is Beautiful" opens on 12 February at the Curzon Mayfair, Odeon Kensington and selected London cinemas. It is released nationwide on 26 February

Francine Stock is the presenter of Radio 4's "Front Row". Her first novel, "A Foreign Country", is published by Chatto & Windus in March

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide