I own a few films, if you know what I mean. Wings of Desire, Hurlyburly, The Deer Hunter, Dead Man Walking, and at the top nothing beats The 400 Blows as a vehicle for parenthood as the wanton destruction of childhood innocence. That Truffaut’s finest film neatly dovetails with all I’ve seen of parenting makes it my lifelong favorite, since I first saw it 20 years ago and sat stunned in the seat for a half hour afterwards, til I was half-carried out by the hapless and uncomprehending theatre manager.
Last night I saw 1997’s brave and controversial WWII farce Life is Beautiful, about the lengths a father went to preserve his child’s innocence in a concentration camp, which he did by convincing the boy they were playing a game. The dad clowns and pratfalls his way through the horror with jokes and fibs and does it all for love of his boy. He knew exactly what he was defending and that it was worth preserving. And that is news to me.
Child Giosué: [reading the sign at a bakery]”No Jews or Dogs Allowed.” Why do all the shops say, “No Jews Allowed”?
Father Guido: Oh, that. “Not Allowed” signs are the latest trend! The other day, I was in a shop with my friend the kangaroo, but their sign said, “No Kangaroos Allowed,” and I said to my friend, “Well, what can I do? They don’t allow kangaroos.”
Giosué: Why doesn’t our shop have a “Not Allowed” sign?
Guido: Well, tomorrow, we’ll put one up. We won’t let in anything we don’t like. What don’t you like?
Guido: Good. I don’t like Visigoths. Tomorrow, we’ll get sign: “No Spiders or Visigoths Allowed.”
Guido: [being shipped to a concentration camp] You’ve never ridden on a train, have you? They’re fantastic! Everybody stands up, close together, and there are no seats!
Giosué: There aren’t any seats?
Guido: Seats? On a train? It’s obvious you’ve never ridden one before! No, everybody’s packed in, standing up. Look at this line to get on! Hey, we’ve got tickets, save room for us!
Giosué: I didn’t like the train.
Guido: [to his son] Me, neither. We’ll take the bus back, okay?
Guido: [to the Nazis] Did you hear that? We’re taking the bus back!
When he volunteers to translate a Nazi officer’s commands into Italian, Guido hollers out: “We play the part of the real mean guys who yell.” And, “Don’t ask for lollipops. You won’t get any. We eat them all.”
A brilliant strategy, but he was also clearly out of his mind, laughing in the face of evil. What else can you do? Score another one for mad pride and a new favorite to add to the list.