Among a certain group of critics, the mere mention of Roberto Benigni’s Holocaust… dramedy?… “Life is Beautiful” is enough to provoke hours of enraging ranting. It’s doubtful that Mark Herman’s “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” will endure in theaters or memory long enough to be worth such a reaction, but there’s still plenty of outrage to go around. An adaptation of John Boyne’s child POV novel about Bruno, whose Nazi-commander father is transferred by “the Fury”, family is tow, to “Out-With,” where “farmers” wearing “striped pajamas” mill around behind a fence, among them a young boy Bruno befriends, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” stars Vera Farmiga and David Thewlis.
“See the Holocaust trivialized, glossed over, kitsched up, commercially exploited and hijacked for a tragedy about a Nazi family. Better yet and in all sincerity: don’t,” writes Manohla Dargis at the New York Times. Stephanie Zacharek at Salon allows that “I realize that at least in vague terms, ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’ is defensible as a tale of hope and friendship in the face of unspeakable and inhuman horror. And Herman takes great pains to keep the proceedings as tasteful as possible — which makes it worse.”
Lisa Schwarzbaum at Entertainment Weekly believes that “As a Holocaust-for-kids fable, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is an appalling, jaw-dropping movie that will cause serious nightmares,” a sentiment seconded by Logan Hill at New York, who finds that “[t]he switcheroo finale is jaw-droppingly ludicrous.” But before that ending, suggests Michael Joshua Rowin at indieWIRE, the film is, for a while, a worthy response to “Life is Beautiful: “Benigni’s coddling, regressive approach toward reality deserves to be combated, but ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’ succeeds as a corrective for only so long until a manipulative and wrongheaded ending completely undoes everything Herman… has worked toward.”
Not everyone dislikes the film. Tasha Robinson at the Onion AV Club admits “It sounds ridiculous, and yet thanks to a remarkable concatenation of talent, it’s horrifying rather than risible.” Chuck Wilson at the Village Voice notes that while he first found the ending “absurdly melodramatic,” “a moment later, it occurred to me that the finale might just devastate–and educate–middle- and high-school-age audiences themselves only a little less naive than Bruno, who could do worse than have this earnest, well-made film be their first Holocaust drama.” (This smacks of the critical approach of “I don’t like horror/animated/scifi/children’s films, but people who do might enjoy this,” which I find pointless.) Roger Ebert gives it three and a half stars, and writes that it “is not only about Germany during the war, although the story it tells is heartbreaking in more than one way. It is about a value system that survives like a virus.”
[Photo: “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” Miramax, 2008]