It’s hard to be a father. Or so I assume, not being one myself. Though, having been a kid, I can only imagine how awful I was to parent. There are dirty diapers, temper tantrums, scraped knees, and that’s not to mention genocide and the apocalypse (though I never experienced the last two, thank goodness).
It’s tough in the best of times and it only gets harder when the world takes a turn for the worse. And in the worst of times, how should fathers give their sons hope?
Imagine, for instance, being a dad in the holocaust, trying to keep your son safe from the horror of the Nazis. This is the position of Guido Orefice in Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, a hilarious and haunting comedy about an Italian Jew during the Holocaust. In the latter half of the film, Guido ends up in a German concentration camp trying desperately to convince his son that the entire thing is a clever game. When the going gets tough, Guido spins a yarn to protect his son from the horrors of the world to give him hope.
Guido is a smooth-talker, a storyteller. Whenever he’s faced with a situation he doesn’t like, he tells a story to make it less bad. When he meets a pretty woman, he pretends to be an Italian Ambassador just to sneak into her school and talk to her again. (When asked to explain why Italians are a superior race, he adlibs: “Why are the Italian people better than anyone else? Well, just look at my belly button! How can you deny this is a fabulous belly button?”).
Later in the film, when his son asks why some store owners say they won’t sell to Jews or dogs, Guido says,
“People can do what they want. I was in a store the other day that wouldn’t sell to Chinese or kangaroos. Here, how about we do the same for our bookstore? We won’t sell to spiders or Visigoths, how about that?”
Guido’s cleverness always serves to protect himself and those he loves from the darkness of the world. He has the ultimate ‘put on a happy face’ philosophy. So when Guido and his son, Joshua, are taken to a German concentration camp, Guido decides he will pretend this trip to a concentration camp is all a part of a game for his son’s birthday and if Joshua is very good, they can earn enough points to win a tank (a real tank!) and go home.
This is a fiction, of course. Guido and his son are not in a game. The holocaust will not end if they achieve enough made-up points. The German soldiers are not waiting to give someone a real-life tank. Guido hides true reality from his son through his wit. Guido uses it and his intellect to get him through scrapes. The philosophy is picked up from his friend and basically boils down to positive thinking (or even, really, just thinking). Think the wrong thing long enough and it might become true. As a character, Guido shows the viewer that when reality comes knocking, a good father puts on a face for his child and gets by through his smarts. What his son doesn’t know won’t hurt him and, as long as Guido can sustain the lie and give his son joy, that’s all that matters. While this is noble, we start to see the toll it takes on Guido. And we have to wonder, is this a sustainable path for those who are not as quick-witted or as lucky as the Italian?
Let’s imagine another scenario. Imagine, if you can, a worse scenario for a father than the holocaust: the apocalypse. The Road is a film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel about a father and son (aptly named Man and Boy) attempting to survive in a world of ash, dying trees, and cannibalistic gangs looking for a last meal of literal blood and flesh (no transubstantiation necessary). It’s hard to imagine something worse than the holocaust, but McCarthy does his best.
Man, in his undesirable situation, decides against Guido’s philosophy of parenting. He’s brutally honest with Boy about the situation they are in. When they find themselves in an abandoned barn, scavenging for food, Boy stumbles upon several bodies hanging from the ceiling. The way the camera catches the shot, all we can see is Boy and the ankles of the deceased. Boy is obviously shocked, but Man calms his fears, saying, “Don’t worry, they committed suicide.” Sure enough, the deceased had hanged themselves; they are not ripening on meat hooks. This is the world the father and son live in: where suicide is the better way out. No points and tanks here. Man spins no yarns to gloss over the drab, gray, depressing world.
Though this is not entirely true. After a particularly nasty encounter with a band of cannibals, Boy asks his father if they will ever eat people. Man is faced with a choice. He’s been around. He lived before the world went to hell. He saw people turn into cannibalistic monsters. He saw his own wife give in to the talons of despair and walk off into the night, never to return. He only survived against the grip of death because he lived for his son (a task which even the boy’s mother did not find satisfactory). Man could tell his son that there is a good chance they, too, may fall into the blackness if they get hungry enough or desperate enough. Yet, he doesn’t. Instead, he tells his son that they will never eat people, for they ‘carry the fire.’
What is the fire? In a way, one could interpret it as something Man makes up. The fire is a story he tells himself and Boy to make the world seem less dim. It might not be as broad a lie as Guido’s tank game, but it might be a deeper and more harmful one if it’s false. Guido lies about the tangible world, which could have resulted in his son’s death. Man risks crushing his son’s spirit and his body by offering him a metaphysical narrative that may be untrue. If Man and Boy can fall prey to the cannibalism, then lying to his son will make him more susceptible to the darkness than less. The lie in pursuit of hope will lead to despair. Yet, unlike Guido, Man doesn’t seem to be just making this entirely up out of his own head. He states, if God ever spoke, Boy is the word of God. He calls his son the last god on earth. Guido relies on intellect and quick-wittedness to get him through a terrible situation. Rather than trying to craft his own story, Man fits himself and his son into a grander story, bigger than anything that he could conceive himself. Instead of fiction, he crafts–or discovers–mythology. (I may be manipulating word definitions by drawing such distinctions, but dang it if I don’t like destroying the English language).
To be fair, Guido’s perspective on the world is not entirely a bad one. A great many hardships can be overcome through positive thinking, through shifting our perspective. And Guido’s example serves strong: to the end, he keeps up the façade for his son’s sake. He constantly denies himself and his own weariness to put on joy for his son. As a Christian, this self-sacrifice is commendable. But how often does Christianity turn into just putting a shiny gloss over an evil world? If Christianity is a mental construct entirely dependent on me thinking the right thoughts, then I wonder if it is only suitable for those with the mental strength of the quick-minded Italian. Yet, for me, and anyone else who’s mental capacity may not be strong enough to sustain an image of a beautiful world for all of one’s life, a Christianity based on thinking the right thoughts and spinning evil into good is overwhelming and, perhaps, untenable.
This is not to say that Man’s approach is entirely satisfactory from a Christian perspective either. His approach is a little too focused on his son–though the father’s reliance on the son and the son’s reliance on the father does give interesting Trinitarian undertones–which puts a lot of weight on both himself and the child. One could argue that his ideas are, likewise, rooted in desperate fictions, but fictions of divinity instead of games. While Man’s theology may be lacking, his approach to accepting the darkness of the world while searching for the transcendent within is admirable. Man doesn’t have all the answers. He can’t explain why he and his son are there, why the trees are falling, where the rest of humanity might be. The apocalypse isn’t a game with every answer coming from his mind. However, he can stand the questions because he has an inkling of a deeper meaning, of his place in a broader story.
This question of authority over the story may be the biggest difference between the two. Man views himself as a part of the story. He is the servant of the Word of God. He guards the last god on earth. He carries the fire and his story continues beyond him because the story was never his to begin with. Guido, in contrast, is the author of his story. He sets himself up as the storyteller, crafting lies at every turn to keep his son from despair. His story is only as big as his ability to tell it. By rooting the story in himself, he risks himself collapsing under the weight. Eventually, it does, and the story becomes about Guido, a story of a father remembered by his son, rather than the story of a tank that Guido told. Guido’s story of a game only survives because the story of the man transcends the story he tells.
In the end, the two characters give two different, but oddly similar, visions of fathers bestowing hope to the next generation. Both are storytellers. However, while Guido crafts the story himself, pushing back against a horrifying reality, Man acknowledges reality but situates himself within a greater story. A story of humanity carrying the fire against the darkness. Give me that over a tank any day.
Jesse Rice is a farmer and journalist. He loves storytelling and literature, both analyzing and creating. He enjoys cracking jokes, having deep and heavy discussions, and playing his mandolin and violin. Sometimes all three at once. He is currently studying for his Masters of English. To read more of his analysis or his short stories, visit www.jesseorice.com.