So I would just like to take a moment to get down on my knees and profess my undying love for Roberto Benigni and Life Is Beautiful. I love that man, and I love that movie. I think part of the reason for the mixed reception that the man and the movie--particularly the man--received in America is due to culture shock. Typically speaking, Americans are not so effusive in expressing our emotions, particularly our positive emotions, which is not to suggest that all Italians are as demonstrative as Benigni, but I do think, based on limited cultural exposure, it's more acceptable for them to be animated--in their hands, in their faces, in their voices--than it is for most of us Americans. Moreover, I think that there's a great pervading sense of cynicism in American culture; those of us who aren't cynics are taught to believe that we should be, so I think we sometimes have trouble embracing love and joy and light-heartedness and joie de vivre, maybe because we are afraid that if we partake too fully and gladly of it we will have pay a penalty for it later. And so when someone comes to us with a heart overflowing with love and joy and gratitude, I think we either have trouble accepting that it is genuine and not just a ploy to manipulate us, or we feel jealous that someone embracing so wholeheartedly that which we have denied ourselves.
I see a lot of similar themes in Life Is Beautiful to The Shawshank Redemption; they're both stories about overcoming adversity with love and hope and joy and imagination, about the resiliency of the human spirit, about brave men who stand in the face of pure malevolence and refuse to be broken. I can see why those interpellated into a cynical worldview, particularly those who are cynical by nature, would object to that; after all, some people do break and some people do fall, and sometimes evil seems to triumph. And yet, I think that cynicism can become a self-fulfilling prophecy; if we continually expect people to break and to fall and to let us down then they will live down to our expectations.
I think that Roberto Benigni is one of the most aptly named human beings I have ever heard of; assuming that his last name comes from the same Latin root as the word "benign" (which I think is a pretty safe assumption), it evokes good feelings and good intentions. To me, he is the personification of joy. I can see why some people would feel bewildered and even affronted by this effervescent outpouring of love and joy and gratitude, especially in trying times. On the other hand, what would happen if everyone could see hardships like poverty as a gift, a chance to learn and appreciate what is really important? What if, as in the movie, we saw adversity not as a burden but as a game, a chance to test one's courage and endurance against a skilled opponent. It's an idealistic notion to be sure, but then I am an Idealist and so, I believe, is Roberto Benigni. Come to think of it, I think that's why I love him, because he is a kindred spirit and he reminds me of what I really am.