In a charity shop the other day I picked up a good haul of old foreign-language videos. (Memo: I must give up going to charity shops for Lent.) One of them was the black and white “Miracle in Milan”, made by Vittorio De Sica in 1950. It won the Best Film award at the 1951 Cannes Film Festival and you can see why. A mixture of magic, gritty realism, humour, whimsy and sharp social commentary, it is enchanting and entertaining by turns. Its pace is also very slow by modern standards, but that’s by the by.
The central character, Toto, is one of those saintly innocents, rarely described in literature or film, simply because they are so unusual. Without being at all overtly “religious”, the film suggests that people like Toto can change lives by virtue of their passionate faith in the beauty and mystery of life. In one scene he sees a young man standing on a railway line, fatalistically waiting for an approaching train. Toto rushes up to him and pulls him aside just in time, countering the other man’s dejection with the words “La vita e bella!” (Life is beautiful!)
Incidentally, this phrase was the title of a more recent film, made in 1997 about a Jewish father, played by Roberto Benigni, who shields his small son from the appalling events in a concentration camp by pretending they are part of an elaborate game. At the time, this film received some protests from Jewish quarters which felt it was trivialising the very real horrors that took place in those camps. I disagree. As with “Miracle in Milan”, a much more light-hearted and fantastic exercise in make-believe, the film reflects a fundamental truth: that life is beautiful, despite its tragedies and sorrows, because it is underpinned by love: in the De Sica film, the love is shown by the way Toto wants to change the miserable lives of those around him, struggling in a post-war shanty town outside Milan and at the mercy of greedy speculators; in the Benigni film, by the self-sacrificial love shown by the father for his son.
As it happens, LifeSiteNews of January 15 includes an article by Paul Russell about a 44-year-old Welsh academic, Frances Medley, who had multiple sclerosis and who chose to kill herself.
She denied this was what she was actually doing, explaining that deciding to “end my life in the manner of my choosing” was not the same as “committing suicide.” Russell thinks this is because the word “suicide” is always seen negatively, especially by the grieving relatives left behind.
He comments: “We want people who are feeling desperate to know that ending their lives by suicide is not acceptable; just as we want and hope that they will always find support and strength to push through their difficulties. And, while Ms Medley’s difficulties were not going to pass and she was facing the trajectory that all MS sufferers do, the acceptance of one’s increasing limitations and deterioration and looking positively to what they still can do, should still provide impetus to help – to want to stop that suicide.”
As with Toto in “Miracle in Milan”, we must retain the “impetus to help” those around us, and recognise their despair as a cry for the loving support of others. Despite all its ugly and painful aspects, life is beautiful.