I have read a lot on World War II and seen quite a few films; much of it has had a deep impact. Life Is Beautiful, that I watched again recently, has stayed by my side because it clasped the heart. No amount of fighting and strategy could convey what Guido sought to conceal. For me the film was less about war than it was about peace – the peace within us that seeks order, that thirsts for a few drops of rain on parched earth, that clamours to hold on to clammy palms to share fears and thereby lessen them.
Some had criticised it as being too simplistic. What is not simplistic about deciding enemies and shooting off your mouth and damning whole sections of people only because you need to protect a geographical space? What is not simplistic about control? What is not simplistic about the belief that you are superior only because you belong to a place that seems superior? Think about Chaplin’s brilliant portrayal of Hitler (and a Jewish barber) in The Great Dictator and see how simplistic it can be when the roles are swapped.
Joshua’s education in forgetting is nuanced. It is easy to remember, to learn by rote, to take mental snapshots of what is happening and see the worst in it. It is not easy to watch all this and believe that it is not what it appears to be. If Guido tells his son that some of the things he is supposed to do are games, then games were indeed being played by the big powers, big boys with big ammunition getting into a huddle and forming groups, much like children do at school and in play areas, but much worse. They were not destroying places or conquering them; they were destroying the worth of people’s identities, soiling them with small ideologies. It was a muddy, bloody battle. The family knew it was not a game, but that tank which was to be theirs to conquer symbolised victory over forces stronger.
The father is shot dead, and Joshua does not know about it. The hidden is so much more potent. Why does the child believe his stories for so long? There is only one answer: Faith that comes from love. This isn’t a war story, but a love story where forgetting is more important than remembering.