Redemptive Reality

This Sunday the Oscars will feature a film that could win Best Picture not once, but twice. I'm talking about Life is Beautiful, a stunning Italian film that is one of the most moving comedies you'll ever see. It's nominated in both the Best Film and Best Foreign Film categories, and what is even more unusual, it illustrates a Christian truth that there are purposes and realities that transcend our sufferings. Roberto Benigni, who wrote, directed, and stars in Life is Beautiful, is a comic genius who's been called the Italian Charlie Chaplin. But the subject of his movie, the Nazi Holocaust, is anything but funny. Benigni's character, a sad-sack waiter named Guido, courts the affections of a local schoolteacher, and through various hilarious adventures wins her heart. They marry and have a son. Then things take a dark turn: Father and son, who are Jewish, are sent to a concentration camp. Guido, who's been irrepressibly joyful throughout, doesn't let even this monstrous turn of events get to him. To shield his son from the horrors they're going through, Guido concocts a wild story, telling the boy that the whole experience is really just an elaborate game. They'll have to play very, very hard to win, he says, but if they succeed, the boy will win a magnificent prize: a real tank! It's a measure of the film's brilliance that the humor is never mawkish or inappropriate. Still, that hasn't stopped some movie critics from expressing horror at the idea of a comedy set in a concentration camp. Critics have called it "profoundly unsettling" and say it "trivializ[es] the Holocaust." How is it that Benigni has dared to use humor in a film about the greatest evil of this century? He's done it by expressing the Christian idea that there's more to life than what we see. In the scene in which the father is being led away to be killed, he spots his son and makes a funny face. The message is that there is something that triumphs over even death, some transcendent reality that, even in this ultimate moment of gravity, enables Guido to make his son laugh. Most of our cultural leaders operate from a purely naturalistic perspective that says that material existence is all there is. For them, since nothing transcends this world and its horrors, pretending that we can laugh even in the midst of the Holocaust is offensive and absurd. But Scripture teaches that there are eternal things, and if we understand the value of these things, we will not be cowed even by the most appalling earthly circumstances. Benigni seems to understand this profound truth. Things like courage, self-sacrifice, and love are all part of being made in God's image, and are more real than our sufferings. That's why, when faced with the horror of the Holocaust, Guido can still make you smile. You may enjoy watching the Oscars this year because so many great movies have been nominated--especially this subtitled Italian film that features an innocent Jewish man in his thirties who ends up being killed. It's not the Gospel story, but it does point to the Gospel, because it's about how God's redemptive reality trumps the very worst this world has to offer--yes, even the Holocaust.


Chuck Colson


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