An Interfaith Family Faces the Holocaust: A Review of Life is Beautiful

By Ronnie Friedland


As a member of an interfaith family, the scene my mind keeps replaying from the popular yet controversial film Life is Beautiful is the one where a grandmother sees her five-year-old grandchild for the first time. It wasn’t the physical distance that had kept them apart, but rather the gentile grandmother’s disapproval of her daughter Dora’s marital choice. Dora had rejected the wealthy, socially acceptable man her mother wanted her to marry and instead chose to marry the penniless but charming Jew who made her happy.

The movie–which is set in Italy under Mussolini’s reign in 1939, when racial purification policies were just beginning to be implemented–leaves out the painful scenes between the mother and daughter that must have followed Dora’s rejection of her mother’s choice for her. The next time we see the grandmother is many years later. She enters her son-in-law Guido’s bookstore, and the grandson she has never seen waits on her. Gradually, the precocious child realizes she is his grandmother. Unfortunately, the first family get-together that is planned as a result of the bookstore visit never happens, because in the interim the father and son are swept up and put on a train to Auschwitz.

Once Dora realizes they have been arrested, she runs to find them. When she hears they are on a train about to depart, she demands to be sent with them, determined to share their fate. Once again, Dora’s choice of a husband separates her from her mother.

The scene reminded me of episodes from my own childhood when the daughter of close family friends married a charming, brilliant man from India, and her parents sat shiva (mourned) and cut off contact with her for about ten years. And it made me grateful for the increased tolerance that exists today toward interfaith families and to my Jewish parents and non-Jewish in-laws who all graciously accepted my own interfaith marriage and our two children.

What also struck me about the film was the depiction of Dora’s boredom with her own social set, as well as her discomfort with their prejudice and snobbery, and her attraction toward the “other”–the spontaneous, whimsical, Jewish Guido (charmingly played by director Roberto Benigni)–who broke all the rules and conventions that so stifled Dora. Surely this attraction to the other–to someone from a different background with a fresh perspective on life–is one factor in the rise in interfaith marriages. For the Jewish Guido, Dora (movingly played by director Benigni’s wife Nicoletta Braschi) was the unattainable dream that he eventually succeeded in attaining.

While the first half of the film shows Guido wooing and winning Dora, the second half, which occurs in a concentration camp, depicts Guido’s efforts to shield their son Giosue (played by Giorgio Cantarini) from the harsh reality of the camp and, ultimately, to save his life. In order to shield his son, Guido concocts the notion that everyone is playing a game at the camp, and that the person who plays it best will win a real tank at the end. Whenever anything unpleasant happens, he pretends it is part of the game.

For me, the film’s charm began to disintegrate once they arrived in the concentration camp, for it is here that what had been sweet became impossible to believe. In a real concentration camp, where the inmates were dying from starvation and disease, unable to wash and miserable from the cold, could a little boy, left alone all day while his father and everyone else in the barracks were sent to work, truly believe it was all a game? And are we supposed to believe that Guido could successfully mingle Giosue with the clean, well-fed children of the camp’s administrators and that no one would notice that he was not one of them?

Sorry, but for me, it was just too much. To create a credible film, the conditions in that concentration camp would have to have been more accurately portrayed, but then it would have been impossible for Giosue to believe it was a game.

Taken as an interfaith family fable, if the story had been told in another setting it would have been an alluring tale of a devoted and creative father in a loving, interfaith family who finds a way to make an unbearable situation endurable for his young son. But set in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, the film requires too large a leap of one’s imagination.


About Ronnie Friedland

Ronnie Friedland was the founding Web Magazine Editor of InterfaithFamily.