Perhaps the key scene of the film (Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful") occurs when the child gets tired of the game which involves so many deprivations of the camp life (lack of food, the necesssity to hide for hours) and announces to the father that he wants to leave for home. Unperturbed, the father agrees, but then, with a feigned indifference, mentions to the son how glad their competitors will be if they leave now, when they are in the lead with so many points over the others... In short, he deftly manipulates the dimension of the other's desire, so that, when, finally, close to the doors, father says to the son "OK, let's go, I cannot wait for you all day!", the son changes his mind and asks him to stay. Of course, the tension of the situation is created by the fact that we, the spectators, are well aware that the father's offer to go home is a false choice, a pure bluff: if they were effectively to step out, the son (who is hiding in the barracks) would be immediately killed in the gas chamber. Perhaps, therein resides the fundamental function of the protective father: under the guise of offering a (false) choice, to make the subject-son freely to choose the inevitable through the competitive evocation of the other's desire.- Slavoj Zizek, "Laugh Yourself to Death: the New Wave of Holocaust Comedies!"
Life Is Beautiful makes it clear how the so-called human dignity relies on the urgent need to maintain a minimum of protective appearance - are not all fathers doing something similar, although in less dramatic circumstances? Benigni's protective father ultimately accomplishes the work of "symbolic castration": he effectively separates the son from his mother, introduces him to the dialectical identification with the Other's (his peer's) desire, and thus accustoms him to the cruel reality of the life outside the family. The fantasmatic protective shield is the benevolent fiction allowing the son to come to terms with harsh reality - father does NOT protect the son from harsh reality of the camp, he just provides the symbolic fiction that renders this reality bearable. And is this not father's main function? Is it not that, if "becoming mature" means that we no longer need such a protective appearance, we in a sense NEVER become effectively "mature": we just displace the shield of the protective appearance onto a different level? In today's times, obsessed with "unmasking the false appearances" (from the traditional Leftist critique of the ideological hypocrisy of morality or power, to the American TV on which individuals in talk shows disclose publicly their innermost secrets and fantasies), it is touching to see such a pageant to the benevolent power of appearance.
What remains problematic in Benigni's film is the allegoric relationship between the film's narrative and the way the film addresses its spectator: is it not that, in the same way the father within the film constructs a protective fictional shield to render the traumatic reality of the concentration camp bearable, Benigni himself treats the spectators as children to be protected from the horror of the holocaust by a "crazy" sentimental and funny fiction of a father saving his son, the fiction that renders the historical reality of the holocaust somehow bearable?
As such, Benigni's film should be opposed to another recent film, Thomas Vinterberg's Celebration in which the father, far from protecting the children from trauma, is the very cause of the trauma. In one case, we have a father assuming an almost maternal protective role, knitting a protective web of fictions for his son, a kind of ersatz-placebo. On the other hand, we have the father at whose core we arrive through the dismantling of all protective fictions: at this point, we see him as what he is, as the brutal jouisseur, rapist of his own children... Celebration tells a lot about how today, with the False Memory Syndrome (of being molested by one's parents), the spectral figure of the Freudian Urvater, sexually possesing everyone around him, is resuscitated - it tells a lot precisely on account of its artificial and fake character. A closer look at Celebration tells us that there is something wrong and faked about all this pseudo-Freudian stuff of "demystifying the bourgeois paternal authority": today, such a "demystification" sounds and is false, it more and more functions as a postmodern pastiche, even as a nostalgic depiction of the good old times in which it was still possible really to experience such "traumas". Why?
The recent impasse with Binjamin Wilkomirski's Fragments points in the same direction: what everyone assumed to be authentic blurred memories of the author who, as a 3-4 years old child, was imprisoned in Majdanek, turned out to be a literary fiction invented by the author. Apart from the standard question of literary manipulation, are we aware to what extent is this "fake" revealing of the fantasmatic investment and jouissance operative in even the most painful and extreme conditions? Usually, we generate fantasies as a kind of shield to protect us from the unbearable trauma; here, however, the very ultimate traumatic experience, that of the holocaust, is fantasized as a shield - from what?
Along the same lines, the rapist enjoying father of the False Memory Syndrome, far from being the Real beneath the respectful appearance, is rather himself a fantasy formation, a protective shield - against what? Such a father-jouisseur is the ultimate guarantee that there is somewhere full, unconstrained enjoyment. So what if the true horror is the lack of enjoyment itself? The true horror is not the rapist Urvater against which the benevolent maternal father protects us with his fantasy shield, but the benign maternal father himself - the truly suffocating and psychosis-generating experience for the child would have been to have a father like Benigni, who, with his protective care, erases all traces of the excessive surplus-enjoyment. It is as a desperate defense measure against THIS father that one fantasizes about the rapist father.