November 06, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful is undeniably some sort of feat — the first feel-good Holocaust weepie. It’s been a long time coming. Any veteran art-house patron will probably, by now, have sat through more films about the Holocaust than he or she can count. The reason hardly needs stating — it’s the defining atrocity of the 20th century — yet these movies have also come to constitute a kind of cinematic universe unto themselves. It’s that universe, I think, that begets a picture like Life Is Beautiful, which has the audacity — or is it insensitivity? — to place its lovable clownish hero in a death camp that looks like something out of a ’50s musical. You’ll laugh! You’ll cry! You’ll smile through the evils of genocide!

Benigni, whose moonstruck mug and receding flyaway hair make him resemble a warmer version of the young Woody Allen, plays Guido, a winsome Jewish-Italian rogue who, with nothing but a few farm eggs in his pocket, arrives in a picturesque Tuscan village on the eve of World War II. Before long, this rube-in-the-piazza meets a pretty schoolteacher (Nicoletta Braschi) and, gloriously smitten, does everything he can to win her. Benigni is a performer of ebullient, if sometimes strenuous, charm. He grins, he gawks, he takes intricate pratfalls, but, mostly, he talks, in a voluble stream of patter. As cowriter and director, he also succeeds, to an extraordinary degree, in reviving the neo-Technicolor lushness and affectionate screwball rhythms of postwar Hollywood. The first hour of Life Is Beautiful is genuinely lovely, a delicate romance spiked with antifascist farce. When Benigni hilariously impersonates a Mussolini-regime official, the scene owes an obvious debt to The Great Dictator, but Benigni earns the comparison.

And then? Then our hero, having won his girl, married her, and had a son, is carted off to a concentration camp. Have no fear: In Life Is Beautiful, the place resembles nothing so much as the soundstage for a ballet set in Auschwitz, complete with gray-striped uniforms that now seem weirdly like costumes. Guido spends the rest of the film shielding his little boy from the brutality that surrounds them, pretending that it’s all literally just an elaborate game. There’s only one problem: As shot, it looks like a game. We don’t see any brutality, either (though there is one ghostly image of corpses), and so the film, stylizing reality to an insane degree, treats us like children, too. In Life Is Beautiful, Benigni transforms the Holocaust into a grimly tidy postcard — he vacuums it of meaning. The film starts out as sentimental whimsy and ends as sentimental kitsch. As the century winds down, though, that may be just what audiences want: to see horror made harmless — turned into nothing but a movie. B-

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