Life Is Beautiful, 1997
4 ½ Stars
As the voiceover narration at the beginning of the film informs us, “Life Is Beautiful” is a fable. It begins as a light romantic comedy: In Fascist Italy, the clownish Guido (Roberto Benigni) attempts to woo Dora (Nicoletta Braschi) away from her stuffy fiancé. To impress the pretty Dora, the likeable Guido hatches hilarious schemes that evolve into classic bits in the tradition of Chaplin and Keaton: mistaken identities, runaway cars, pratfalls and pie-in-the-face gags. Forty-five minutes into the film, Guido has stolen Dora’s heart and together they steal away from her engagement party to consummate their relationship in his greenhouse.
When they emerge from the greenhouse on what seems like the next day, they are joined by a companion: their son Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini). It is now five years later. The light, airy comedy now shifts to something more serious. Guido, an Italian Jew, and his family are persecuted endlessly. On Giosue’s birthday, Guido and Giosue are arrested by the prefect and herded onto a train with other Jews, bound for a death camp. Dora, not Jewish, insists on boarding the train as well, to be with her husband and child.
Guido knows that the sick, the old, and the children are sent to the showers, but is determined to shield his son from knowledge of the horror. He concocts an elaborate fantasy: this is all a game. The object is to get 1000 points. First place wins a real tank. Guido constantly changes the rules to adapt to the horrible circumstances. Needless to say, Giosue plays a lot of hide-and-seek. Guido laughs off his son’s worries; he tells Giosue that a rumor that camp prisoners are going to be cooked in an oven to become buttons and soap is merely a trick by other contestants to throw Giosue off course. “And to think, you almost fell for it!”
Benigni deftly navigates the film’s difficult subject matter with his characterization of Guido. The wonderfully comic Guido represents the power of laughter, human ingenuity and self-sacrifice in overcoming even the most evil of human tragedies. The evocative score by Nicola Piovani, the subtle photography of Tonino Delli Colli, and the production design of Danilo Donati punctuated the story’s appealing sense of fable.
Life Is Beautiful won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and deservedly so.