Before sitting down to write this paper, I acknowledged some anxiety about the idea of constructing a feminist criticism to be read by my feminist professor. Growing up in a family wherein my mother was the breadwinner who definitely appeared to control the course of the family’s decisions, a seeming matriarchy, I have always felt like my outlook on life was feminist to a large degree.
For examples: I have always found feminist qualities attractive in possible romantic relationships; I, at one point in my life, gave serious consideration to whether or not I was gay; and I do not believe that I differentiate between “chick flix” and action movies. After reading Sonja Foss’s chapter on feminism, however, I could not help but wonder if I am not a chauvinistic macho pig anyway. And if I am, would I be able to even write a feminist criticism, since it is, after all, writing from a feminist perspective?
I mention this anxiety, not in an attempt to garner mercy from the professor, but as background information that the reader should take into consideration before proceeding. I think it is fair to say, because of the rhetorical nature of this work, that this background information is vital in understanding why I have chosen an optimistic feminist perspective towards the film Life is Beautiful. By optimistic I mean that I will defend the film for its satirical attack on patriarchy. The question with which we are faced is: how does Life is Beautiful, a Holocaust film set in Italy, attack patriarchal philosophy?
In order to show that Life is Beautiful portrays the struggle of women’s (womyn’s) attempt at achieving equal respect among men (myn), and especially from them, I will examine the main character Guido’s relationship with Dora, the woman who becomes his wife halfway through the film. I will first examine evidence of social constructs that unconsciously influence Guido’s early actions towards Dora. These constructs later contribute to a life-altering conscious decision by Guido that is the essence of the feminist “respect” argument in this essay.
The story takes place in Italy, a nation that is perhaps the most deplorably patriarchal of the western/European world. Recently, it became Italian law that pinching a woman on the buttocks cannot be sexual harassment. Imagine, then, the situation for women during the early 1940s — the time period of Life is Beautiful. Upon the first meeting between Guido and Dora, after Guido sucks the wasp poison from her leg, Dora, seemingly undaunted by the action, offers Guido anything he wants from the spread of garden produce and eggs nearby in expression of gratitude for “saving” her.
We know that this gratefulness is not for saving her from falling because there is a huge pile of hay underneath to catch her fall; it is, rather, for supposedly sucking the wasp poison from her thigh. It is interesting to note the social construct, perhaps indicative of Italian culture, that allows Guido first of all to suck a strange woman’s thigh, and then, deplorably, allows her to be indebted to him. Not long after this incident, Guido, fleeing from a man, crashes the bicycle he is riding, and falls on top of Dora in a way that mimics the missionary sexual position.
Instead of what should be the awkwardness of this occurrence causing Guido to apologize out of respect for Dora, he simply says, “Good morning, Princess,” helps her up, and then says, “I wonder if we’ll ever bump into each other standing up. ” Dora does not act as if she has been disrespected in any way. She gazes after Guido as he runs away, and a smile of adoration sneaks onto her face. Later, Guido enters the school where Dora works, masquerading as an inspector from Rome. At first, Dora does not necessarily know that Guido is pretending.
However, regardless of that fact, when Guido approaches her suggestively in front of her coworkers and asks her what she is doing on St. Mary’s day, Dora responds that she is going to the Offenbach opera as if Guido is not showing her any disrespect at all. She demurely answers his questions until the principal interrupts the conversation. After a few minutes of Guido performing an embarrassing demonstration wherein he removes most of his clothing, the real inspector arrives. Guido makes a hasty departure out a window, and says farewell to Dora.
Dora now realizes that Guido was pretending the entire time, but still shows no signs that she is upset. Guido, still a strange man to her, has come into her place of work to flirt with her, made a fool out of himself in front of her coworkers and in front of her students, and exits out of a window with few clothes on. In response to this, all Dora can do is once again display a demure smile as Guido departs. After the performance of Offenbach is over, Guido pulls up in front of the theatre in his friend’s car. As it looks exactly like Dora’s date’s vehicle, she jumps into the car out of the rain.
She is surprised to find that Guido is driving, and asks for an explanation. We think she is finally going to protest the way Guido has been treating her, but, after a few romantic words from him, Dora simply smiles, gently shakes her head and accepts the situation. Speaking of accepting situations, we discover later at Dora’s engagement party that she really does not want to be with the man to whom she is promised to marry. Guido, however, is one of the waiters catering the party. He sends a cake to her table that says, “Bo journo Princepesa,” and Dora immediately has hope.
Guido spills something at the end of her table, and bends down to pick it up. Dora, seeing this, goes under the table and crawls over to him. She kisses him, and says, “Take me away. ” She evidently is not capable of being assertive enough to get herself out of the predicament. Guido rides a decorated horse into the hotel, and Dora goes to him. They ride out together. Guido has saved the damsel in distress. After this point Guido and Dora get married. They now have a son, Joshua. It is interesting, from a feminist point of view, to note that Dora meets, falls in love, and rides away on a white horse with a man whose name she does not know.
At no point in the film, up to their evident marriage, does Dora ever find out Guido’s name. This is yet another example of the patriarchal social constructs that permeate the film. These constructs that place Dora in a position of not being respected by Guido contribute to his decisions in the concentration camp to keep her morale high and to search for her when the camp is being abandoned. Guido and Joshua speak over the intercom so Dora can hear their voices, an action that risks both their lives, and at a dinner party, Guido points a phonograph out a window so Dora can hear music.
In addition to his not believing Dora can emotionally survive the Holocaust, Guido does not respect Dora’s ability to physically save herself, so he once again takes it upon himself to rescue the damsel in distress. He does not succeed, however. The process of searching for Dora amid the chaos of soldiers rounding up prisoners in trucks, leads to Guido’s capture and death at the hands of a German officer. Dora, interestingly, does indeed save herself by finding a way to hide from the Germans until they leave, for she is in the throng of prisoners who exodus from the camp after the Nazis abandon it.
At first glance, it seems as if Life is Beautiful perpetuates patriarchal philosophy. As an optimist, however, I defend the film by suggesting that it is a commentary on patriarchal chauvinism. The social constructs are entirely obvious, and thus, I argue that they are overemphasized for satirical effect. The film, therefore, is an apologue representing the would be devastating effects of patriarchy in the modernized western world where women are becoming more and more powerful — a man treats a woman with disrespect, and, thus, reaps the consequences of death.
The woman, though oppressed throughout the film by the apparent patriarchal social constructs, and by the disrespectful man, now is finally free. Liberated from the patriarchy, she has her child, a son, to rear with a feminist philosophy — to respect women. Joshua, in the final words of the movie, represents his mother’s victory as he throws his arms into the air and shouts, “We won! We Won! ”
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