When “Life is Beautiful” was released in the United States in 1998, I wasn’t as wild about the movie as many others were. I appreciated the tone of director/co-writer/star Roberto Benigni’s film about a father shielding his young son from the horrors of a concentration camp, the premise seemed a trifle strained and sanitized.
At the risk of sounding dramatic, I’ve thought about the movie a lot in recent weeks, as parents — understandably nervous and concerned — have been forced into close quarters with their children by the practice of social distancing.
In the movie, Benigni’s character, Guido, goes to extraordinary lengths to convince his boy that navigating life under the Nazis is actually all an elaborate game. He uses that device — which includes intentionally misinterpreting German commands — to model his son’s behavior, telling him that earning enough “points” will win him a tank.
The narrator, Guido’s grown son, looking back describes his dad’s imaginative creation of that ruse as “his gift to me.”
Roberto Benigni (front) in 'Life is Beautiful.' (© Miramax/courtesy Everett Collection)
Roberto Benigni (front) in ‘Life is Beautiful.’ (© Miramax/courtesy Everett Collection)
Keeping kids in the dark seems impossible in today’s wired age, but there is something to be said for finding ways to safeguard them during this strange predicament, and blunt the obvious anxiety that their parents are feeling as they read about the dire events and scenarios streaming through social-media feeds.
The Italian film (which as it happens will play on Cinemax’s 5StarMax channel several times next week, and is also available for rent on Amazon and iTunes) certainly had its admirers at the time. Nominated for best picture, it earned Oscars for Benigni as best actor and as best foreign-language film. Benigni’s buoyant celebration, leaping up on a seat, remains one of the more memorable acceptance speeches ever.
The movie also prompted criticism, including those who accused Benigni of trivializing the Holocaust. A Psychology Today column in 2015 addressed that point, but defended the underlying message, noting, “The movie is a fable, not a reflection of reality. It portrays the way parents attempt to help their kids make sense of the senselessness life often has in store.”
Roberto Benigni holds his Oscar after winning the best actor for his performance in "Life is Beautiful" in 1999. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/Timothy A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)
Roberto Benigni holds his Oscar after winning the best actor for his performance in “Life is Beautiful” in 1999. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/Timothy A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)
Of course, there’s an odd footnote to all this too — namely, that “Life is Beautiful” was one of the relatively early award triumphs for Harvey Weinstein, the entertainment mogul recently convicted of rape. But the film, this far removed, shouldn’t be judged by the sins of its financier and distributor.
To be fair, I was single and child-free when the movie came out, which might explain why it didn’t fully register with me. Then again, crying at movies has never really been my thing, except for “Spartacus” and “Old Yeller.”
Even so, as the father of two now, “Life is Beautiful’s” uplifting aspect — about finding ways to endure hardships and spare one’s children from them, at least as much as possible — resonates louder and clearer.
Canceled birthday parties, home schooling and missed playdates obviously represent a different level of disruption, but there’s no escaping the extent to which everything abruptly changed and how unsettling that feels. And if it all can’t be a game, there’s something to be said for trying to keep things as normal as possible while acknowledging that life is going to be different for a while.
Being cooped up with Disney+ and iPads, admittedly, is hardly a perfectly analogous situation to the movie. But in terms of parents standing between kids and the full brunt of bad and scary news, all things considered, that seems like a pretty good gift at that..Abdalla Mohamed, with his wife and daughter, at the Cilvegozu border crossing, in Idlib, last February. BURAK KARACAOGLU (GETTY)
The conversation resumed in the early hours of April 24. Since then, the thing is not that it has improved for the family of the Syrian Abdalla Mohamed. Quite the contrary. “I got rid of a nightmare,” he related in that contact, “and another nightmare came.” The talk, simmering, has continued for the next few weeks. They have water around their necks. Abdalla, along with his family, starred last February in one of the few stories with an extremely happy ending that the war in Syria has left. A video in which this 32-year-old young man laughed out loud at his daughter, Salwa, three years old, playing at how bombs were just firecrackers, swept the nets. In a few days, this scene – which reminded so many of Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful -, together with the mediation of Turkey, allowed them to flee their country. Across the corner awaited the blow of the covid-19 crisis.
Abdalla is not the first dad to play hide the war from a son with the imagination. But those smiles, his and the girl’s, contagious, seduced half the world — the mother doesn’t appear much on camera. “Is it an airplane or a projectile?” Abdalla asked his daughter in that video. “A projectile,” Salwa guessed. “When you fall you have to laugh,” said the father. “Has fallen!”. They were broken. That reached the networks on February 15; 11 days later, the family, a native of Saraqib, one of the areas punished by the Syrian regime’s offensive in Idlib province, was crossing the border into Turkey with the placet of the Turkish Interior Minister, Süleyman Soylu. Exit.
More than three months have passed. “Since I entered Turkey,” says Abdalla, “I have been sitting at home because of the coronavirus.” This former Internet service provider cannot find a job, especially since the health emergency forced him to confinement, also in Turkey. They pay $ 200 a month for the home they live in with their friend, in the border town of Reyhanli – most of the nearly four million Syrians who have fled to Turkey live outside of refugee camps. His wife and girl are fine. Salwa continues to star in the videos and photos that Abdalla uploads to the Internet. She plays with her dolls, dances, paints, smiles, but … “I am facing financial difficulties”, Abdalla drops in a message, “the money I have is running out, it’s a really difficult situation. ”
Abdullah sees güzel kızı Selva. Yukarıda durumlarını paylaştığım baba kız. Go yine tekrar eden or kahredici oyun. Anlamak için Arapça bilmenize gerek yok. pic.twitter.com/wUwKAcLzWE
– Mehmet Algan (@alganmehmett) February 16, 2020
Turkey is not Eldorado despite everything. Entering and registered refugees can access healthcare and education. Those who work do so in the informal sector, and that was what Abdalla planned to do. Whatever. But the confinement came and there was no “whatever”. Another option is to opt for the Red Crescent program for the most vulnerable (18 euros per month per person). “It is for families of three children or more and I am not included there, I only have one girl,” says Abdalla with a certain sarcasm and a friendly smiley. It is, indeed, a program (1.7 million beneficiaries) that normally reaches large families, but also the elderly, single women, the disabled …
– How do you pay for the food, Abdalla?
– Some friends help us.
– What kind of job are you looking for?
– Any job, it doesn’t matter.
According to a recent report by the International Federation of the Red Crescent (IFRC), 70% of refugees in Turkey lost their jobs with the arrival of the pandemic. They were left without work, less income, while their expenses in hygiene and sanitary articles increased. “These refugees,” says Rubén Cano, head of the IFRC office in Turkey, “have a very difficult time making ends meet, and I’m afraid it will get worse.”
“There is a Turkish friend who is helping me, but the virus stopped everything,” says Abdalla in another conversation. That Turk is called Mehmet Algan, 34 years old. He was the one who uploaded the father and daughter video to the Network that February 15; the day everything started. And it is he who helps you out with money problems and job search. “After arriving in Turkey I left them a couple of weeks to relax,” says Mehmet in an exchange of messages, “and then I spoke to the head of an NGO, but there was no opportunity. [de trabajo] with the start of the pandemic. ” He will keep trying, he says, now that the health emergency has cleared up. And it will be of whatever. “Unfortunately,” continues Mehmet, “there are only unskilled jobs for refugees.”
Let’s go back to Abdalla:
– Does your daughter Salwa know why she is out of her house?
– Yes, you know that the Russian army and Bachar el Asad stole our land.
– Did you tell him the truth about the bombs?
– She is small, when she grows up she will understand.
– Did you ever think that escaping the war would be so difficult?