Life is Beautiful is not the first comedy involving the Holocaust. In 1940, Charlie Chaplin directed The Great Dictator, which spoofed Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. The similarities between the two films are many, ranging from personal to societal. The differences between the political and social climates in which each film was released, however, are equally vast. Life is Beautiful was made long after the events of the war and the Holocaust had transpired, and the film treats them as important memories to be recorded for posterity. However, when Chaplin released The Great Dictator, these events were not yet consigned to history. The Holocaust was not even over, and society--let alone Charlie Chaplin--did not yet comprehend the full extent of what was taking place in the concentration camps. The two films thus make entirely different statements that must be considered as wholly distinct.
Still, on a superficial level, these two films are very similar. Benigni's physical comedic style has often been compared to Chaplin's, and Benigni himself acknowledges Chaplin's great influence on him and, indeed, on all comedians. "Charlie Chaplin has influenced everything I've ever done. Just everything," Benigni has said. Like Benigni, Chaplin directed and starred in his film--a highly uncommon and difficult endeavor. Also, Chaplin cast his romantic partner Paulette Goddard as his love interest in The Great Dictator, just as Benigni cast his wife Nicoletta Braschi as his love interest in Life is Beautiful. Both films met with great critical success, and both were nominated for best picture, best actor, best music, and best screenplay.
Chaplin and Benigni both have had an unusually strong impact on the political world for entertainers. Benigni is a communist sympathizer who has made numerous public statements and appearances in support of Communist candidates and political figures. In today's society, this is completely acceptable, but in Chaplin's day any hint of sympathy for communists was a serious taboo. Chaplin was not nearly so overt about his political leanings, but he did support an American alliance with the Soviets during World War II, which many took to be a Communist-friendly position. After flying to London for the premiere of his film Limelight in 1952, he was denied re-entry into the United States. He had become a victim of McCarthyism and had been labeled a "dangerous person" by the U.S. government. In his autobiography, Chaplin noted, "My prodigious sin was, and still is, being a non-conformist. Although I am not a Communist I refused to fall in line by hating them."
The political atmosphere in Chaplin's time was hostile; he could not even express support for a political idea without being barred from the United States. Keeping this in mind, Chaplin wrote, produced, directed, and starred in a film lambasting a dictator of a country that was at peace with America at the time. When told of the potential uproar his film might create, Chaplin stated that he was determined to see the film through, for "Hitler must be laughed at." Even though he did not know how people would react, Chaplin made this film because he believed that it was important to the world. He staked over 1.5 million dollars and his personal reputation on the project. In this respect, The Great Dictator is an even more ambitious film than Life is Beautiful, for even though both tackle the difficult subject of Nazism and the persecution of Jews, The Great Dictator did so before it was widely acceptable to criticize Germany and before the world knew the true extent of the horrors taking place in the concentration camps. Chaplin's film helped spread knowledge and awareness about the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis.
Ultimately, the criticism and hardship that Chaplin faced broke him. He stated that he would not continue making films in America, saying that the U.S. had made life impossible for an artist and a free thinker. He even said that men like himself should be "above politics." After the atrocities of the war and the Holocaust had been fully revealed, Chaplin was castigated for treating such a dark subject with such a light tone. He apologized, saying that if he had truly known everything that had happened during the Holocaust, he would not have parodied it in the way he did.
Benigni experienced a similar reaction to Life is Beautiful. To those who asked him how he could joke about such a serious subject, he clarified that he had not made a comedy about the Holocaust, but rather a film about a comic character living through the Holocaust. He asserted that comedy and tragedy are the same if a story is beautiful, and that he had set out to tell a story, not to teach a history lesson about the Holocaust. Benigni views politics and history as artistic tools; he does not worry about their sanctity. Chaplin, on the other hand, felt deeply guilty about having made The Great Dictator, and he ultimately came to believe that politics only got in the way of his art.
Both men made exceptional films, and both films were remarkable for their audacity. Chaplin perhaps made the more significant political statement with The Great Dictator, since he called attention to a humanitarian problem that needed to be addressed and most likely contributed to public awareness of the concentration camps. Benigni perhaps made the more significant artistic statement by valuing artistic expression and the beauty of a story over any political agenda. Even taking on a subject as rife with meaning and bitterness as the Holocaust did not sway him from making an irreverent comedy. As artists and as political figures, both Charlie Chaplin and Roberto Benigni made remarkable, empathetic, and truly magical contributions to their art form.