Sermon preached at Evensong on the Fifth Sunday of Lent (18 March 2018) by the Revd Canon Mark Oakley, Chancellor
Canon Mark Oakley reflects on the film 'Life is Beautiful' and the lessons that can be learned from a father's love and sacrifice for his son and to learn to see that love is stronger than evil.
I tend to agree with Alfred Hitchcock that “the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder”. However, one film that had a profound effect on me, long as it was, was Schindler´s List, the Spielberg film of 1993 that focused on the unspeakable suffering at Auschwitz. I was not very happy, then, four years later to hear that was another film out, an Italian film, that also examined the suffering of the concentration camps but that it was also funny in parts. It was called Life is Beautiful, and was directed by Robert Benigni, whose own father was in such a camp. It won three Oscars and I was wrong to doubt it.
I watched it again on Friday and sat, as usual, in tears at the end – usually it´s then of course that someone calls round or telephones and thinks you’re in a life crisis.
The first line of the film, spoken by the narrator, tells us “This is a simple story but not an easy one to tell”. The story is in two halves. The first is where we meet Guido, a Jewish waiter, funny, spontaneous, loving. He falls in love with Dora, a Catholic woman engaged to an unpleasant Fascist and with touching relentless comic moments he woos her and eventually carries her off on a rainy night out of her restricting class-ridden unhappy life on his uncle´s horse, that has been painted bright green by anti-Jewish thugs. In the midst of the threatening clouds of fascism they celebrate together their pleasure in simple things: eggs, a bike, a kiss. They marry and have a little son, Joshua and to watch the three of them is an absolute joy. Guido makes everything fun. He loves Joshua with a reckless spontaneous deep love, and his wife with the same, and they all live as friends as well as family. It is, indeed, beautiful.
One day, though, on Joshua´s 4th birthday, Dora returns home to find that the Nazis have taken Guido and her son Joshua away to the train bound for the concentration camp. She races there and, although not a Jew, insists that the train is stopped that she can get on it too. Although she is not in the same carriage, she is going with them. She cannot, will not, let them go on this journey without her.
At the camp, to survive the horror, Guido tells the little Joshua that they have entered a big game with lost of tests and that they have to score 1000 points to win a brand new real tank, by not complaining about being hungry, by hiding at certain points and doing what the game leaders in uniforms tell them to do. He pretends each day that he is going out to play hopscotch and ring a rosy with the other men, whilst really he is burdened with carrying iron anvils that is slowly crushing his body. Guido hides the brutality by his fatherly fun. And when he stands to attention in rain, shouted at and imprisoned by walls and dogs, he continues to smile for the sake of his son just as he rescued Joshua´s mum in the rain too that day on a green horse.
Eventually the war looks as if it is ending and the soldiers are keen to cover their evil deeds and get rid of the human evidence. There is panic and movement. Guido puts Joshua in a small post box shaped cupboard and tells him not to come out until everyone has gone because they are all looking for him because he is winning the game and if they find him he loses. Meanwhile in all the confusion he puts a scarf over his head and runs to look for his wife. It is here that Guido is discovered by a search light, pinned on a wall. He is taken away and marched past the cupboard where his son is. They see one another through the post box hole and Guido, true to the fun, to the game, to his love, winks and marches like a toy soldier to reassure his son all’s well and to make him smile one last time. We hear the bullets a few moments later.
Joshua is later rescued by US troops in a tank! His dad was right, here is his prize! As he rides on the tank he sees his mother and calls out. They hug and hug, thin and tired, and Joshua shouts out: “We won, mama, we won! Here´s the tank!” Joshua´s voice then comes in, years later as the film ends: “This was the sacrifice my father made for me”, he says, it was his gift.”
In this series where we are exploring the conversation there is often to be had between faith a film, Life is Beautiful has many lessons to enjoy in it, not least in the first half of watching a simple family survive in the midst of a prejudiced society where sinister forces are at work but where they so clearly prove that happiness is not having what you want but wanting what you have. This is a film about the human spirit and its resilience. It is about life´s possibilities, even in horror. It asks us what it might mean to lay aside your self in order to find it. I was at a talk the other day when the speaker said that we should try and set aside an hour every day, a day every week and a week every year to stop striving, striving to have more, look better, prove more. Instead we should stop in these times and see the gift and good we already have. Such sabbath times, he said, keep us human. Guido and his family celebrated the gift and good they had. Of course, political ideologies can remove this at whim if given power. And I was left wondering whether the question of what would I have done in the 1930’s when fascism was on the rise in Europe is best answered by asking myself what am I doing now when the same is happening in many places as I speak.
There are Christ figures in this film. Dora, though not a Jew, joins those on the way to their suffering. Her love can not be separated from those who make up her life. She reflects God. Guido, similarly, works with contagious love and affection in the midst of evil to save the buoyancy of the human soul and spirit, to prove that hope and courage and humour and love are mightier than bullets and pain, mightier than a cross. ‘Neither death, not life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come’, says St Paul, ‘will be able to separate us from God’ - ever. In Guido’s heart goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. He does anything he can to protect and keep hope alive in his child. He reflects God. Joshua, which of course is the same name as Jesus, believes his father no matter what, and receives life because of it. “This was the sacrifice my father made for me. It was his gift.” Over the holy days ahead we will find ourselves saying the same thing.
A final thought: knowing that human beings like to identify a common enemy, usually an outsider, to keep their group together, an embodiment of evil on which they can throw their violence, we find Jesus asking his followers to break cycles of retributive hatred and to learn to touch the untouchable. Instead of the 1 being castigated by the 99, he tells a story of leaving the 99 to find the 1. He dies as the unjustly persecuted scapegoat who willingly takes our violence on himself to break the circle and stop others being scapegoated, praying even as he dies for forgiveness not revenge. The cross is the judgment of judgment. He absorbs the hate as old as Cain’s for Abel without passing it on and bids his followers do the same so that the mechanisms of projected hate are broken. He dies as we must live. The scandal remains when we don’t. In his own way Guido does the same. Robert Graves actually wrote a poem about Jesus alone in the desert for forty days and nights and only having one friend with him, the little goat, the scapegoat,that had also been sent out into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement, and under the stars of dark and lonely nights they kept themselves warm. There, against all the odds, life was beautiful.