Year of Release: 1997 Directed by Roberto Benigni. Starring Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Sergio Bustric, Giustino Durano, and Giorgio Cantarini.
If one knew nothing about Life is Beautiful, the opening thirty minutes would convince a first time viewer that the film is a romantic comedy. The film opens with Guido (Roberto Benigni) and his friend Ferruccio (Sergio Bustric) driving through the Italian countryside, cavalierly reciting poetry, and not paying attention to the road. When Ferruccio says, “the brakes aren’t working,” Guido assumes that that is the next line of the poem, and only realizes that their car has no breaks once they begin continually accelerating down the hillside.
After crashing through a solemn state procession, they manage to stop the car on a farm where Guido convinces a young girl that he is a prince, he owns all the land, and a beautiful princess will fall from the sky into his arms. At that moment, a young woman named Dora (Nicoletta Braschi) falls from a second story window and Guido catches her. Over the next few weeks Guido continually runs into Dora in increasingly unusual ways and pursues a whimsical romance with her.
Meanwhile Guido has moved in with his Uncle Eliseo (Giustino Durano) and begun working as a waiter in his uncle’s restaurant. While he can remember the complex rules regarding the proper way to serve chicken, simply serving lobster as is, is too simple for him to remember. Nonetheless, Guido’s warm buoyant personality endears him to most of the restaurant’s patrons.
At the end of the first half-hour, there is one event that clearly foreshadows the coming tragedy, and begins the shift of the film to a Holocaust survival story. Uncle Eliseo’s horse is painted green with slurs and death threats to Jews written on top of the paint. Before this incident, there was no way to know that Guido and his family were Jewish, which emphasizes the tragic absurdity of the anti-Semitism prevalent in the axis countries during World War II. People whom everyone loved and who were respected members of society became the victims of racism.
Before the incident with the horse, there are a few subtle suggestion that Life is Beautiful will be a story about the Holocaust. The opening titles establish the year as 1939, and at one point Guido impersonates a school inspector, where he is expected to lecture on the supremacy of the Italian race. However, it is easy to forget the significance of the latter event, because is treated so humorously as Guido sings the praises of his Italian ears and Italian bellybutton, asks Dora on a date, and then runs out by the widow when the real inspector arrives.
All of the opening comedy makes the shift to the Holocaust much more poignant and tragic than it would have been had the film started with the violence of World War II. By portraying the beauty of life as Guido, Dora, and Eliseo joyfully go about the daily routines, unaware of the looming danger, the film adds to the horror of the Holocaust by showing the beauty that it destroyed in addition to the brutality of terrorizing innocent people.
Guido’s sense of humor pervades the entire the film, even the harshest moments in the concentration camp. He never fails to find a positive outlook and reassure his young son Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini), who was born in the intervening years, by telling him that the concentration camp is a game, and the first family to collect 1,000 points by following the orders of the German soldiers will win a real tank and go home. A more cynical person might consider Guido’s optimism and deception living in denial, but it is the same fantasy world in which Guido has comically operated throughout the entire film, earlier claiming he was a prince and then a school inspector. This comic fantasy world is the only way he knows to preserve his son’s calm and safety. Therefore, he will go to any lengths and sacrifices to himself in order to preserve his son’s well-being.
If Life is Beautiful has any flaws at all, it would be that a few of the scenarios substantially stretch credibility. A single instance of voiceover implies a recollection that would not be physically possible. At another point, Joshua wants to leave the camp, claiming that it is not a game. In an attempt to reassure him that there is no danger and they can leave if they want, Guido goes dangerously close to threatening his son’s safety.
However, there are many touching scenes as Guido risks his life with clownish antics to preserve his son’s safety. For instance, after Joshua, impersonating a German boy, makes a slip and speaks to a Nazi in Italian, Guido quickly begins teaching all the German children Italian. When a few Nazis might discover Joshua’s hiding place, Guido endangers himself to distract them. These scenes more than make up for any small flaws.
Guido’s optimism and perpetual humor enables him to make all aspects of life beautiful, even the most brutal and unpleasant ones. This sunny outlook is endearing and hilarious while life goes on as it should, but it also highlights the tragedy when it is threatened. Ultimately, the most touching aspect of Guido’s personality is that it drives to him to make any sacrifice out of love for his family. In a true allegorical fashion, when a person preserves his sense of hope while making the sacrifices that Guido makes, life truly is beautiful.
Content Advisory: Restrained depictions of concentration camp atrocities, some violence, and a few mild sexual references. MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested Audience: Teens and up.
Personal Recommendation: A