In the novel The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the eponymous character, more formally known as Prince Myshkin, makes a statement that gives a brief yet clear indication as to why Dostoyevsky may very well be the greatest writer to ever live.
“Beauty will save the world.”
As my seniors completed the viewing of the film Life Is Beautiful I asked them to ponder the above quote in relation to the film. For those unfamiliar with this classic of Italian cinema, and without giving away anything essential, the story revolves around Guido Orefice, a waiter in a hotel restaurant who aspires to own a bookstore and to woo the girl of his dreams, Dora.
Not only does Guido achieve his two goals, but he and his bride have a son whom they name Joshua. The name is fitting because Guido is Jewish, and the fact that the film takes place in Italy in the 1940s gives a sense of where the plot will take the viewer.
Suffice it to say that Guido, Italian for “guide,” lives up to his name as he maneuvers his family through the treacherous waters of Fascist Italy, and he does so at a huge personal cost. With guile and wit Guido provides safety for his son in such a way that Joshua never even knows that his life is in danger. True to its title, this is a beautiful and life-affirming story.
As one of the culminating events in the Christian Manhood course, this film brings to the forefront the sacrificial nature of the role of husband and father. Guido not only does all in his power to keep Joshua in the dark about just how precarious the life of a young Jewish boy was in Axis occupied territory, but on several occasions he makes contact with Dora, his Principessa, by getting on a public address system and calling out to her over the loudspeaker.
The ultimate message of the film is that love, sacrificial love, is that which makes life beautiful. When seen in conjunction with the quote by Prince Myshkin it becomes clear that all heroic acts of sacrificial love flow from the same source – that of Christ on the Cross.
As a way of both concluding our look at Life Is Beautiful and of showing how the Cross and beauty are necessarily bound together I show a clip from an interview with Dr. Brendan Sammon ’93 of St. Joseph’s University, the Jesuit school in Philadelphia. Brendan taught in our Theology Department for a few years between his time in the graduate schools of the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium and the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
The clip that we saw focused on the intersection of beauty and the Cross, a discipline known as theological aesthetics. Brendan’s comments focused on the importance of seeing the link between the horrible and ugly suffering of Jesus on Good Friday and the unfathomable beauty of the self-sacrifice of the Incarnate Word of God to which the Cross gives witness. And thus he is able to proclaim “the Cross is that pinnacle of what beauty is.”
And through this insight we can tap into the brilliance of “the idiot” Prince Myshkin (and Dostoyevsky). Jesus brought salvation to the world, but did so in a way that was so horrible that we instinctively avert our eyes, and yet so beautiful that we can’t look away. Artists – and artists as different as Fra Angelico and Salvador Dali – get it, and you can see it in their depictions of the crucifixion. In sacrifice there is beauty, and the greater the sacrifice the greater the beauty.
God offered Himself as the sacrifice that brought beauty to the world in a way that was unique and will never be repeated. We, the beneficiaries of that sacrifice, are called to do what we can to bring an image of that sacrifice to all we meet, and especially – as we learn from Life Is Beautiful – to our families, those whose lives most depend upon our sacrifice.
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