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