by Ken B.
There’s a certain dignity and willpower that flows through Life is Beautiful, a wonderful movie by Roberto Benigni. It is a genuinely touching and greatly moving 116 minutes, balancing between the heavy and horrific with the light and comedic. In the wrong hands, such an idea could have been disastrous, but it is pulled off with skill and precision here.
The first half of the movie is set in 1939 Italy, where an optimistic and charming man named Guido (Benigni) works at a hotel as a waiter. By chance, he meets a schoolteacher named Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), and helps treat a wasp sting she had received. From that random encounter, he is immediately captivated by her, and seeks every opportunity to be near her. One of these is to take the place of an inspector from the Italian government (which at this point had allied with Nazi Germany) visiting the students at the school Dora works. When he finds out the intent of the presentation scheduled was to lecture the kids on the supposed superiority of the Aryan race, Guido, a Jewish man, gives an improvised speech, mocking and satirizing supremacist beliefs as the head teacher becomes suspicious, eventually leaving when the actual inspector arrives.
By 1945, Dora and Guido are married and have a young son, Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini). Guido (now a bookstore owner) sees anti-Semitic intent in the flow of local life, and attempts to downplay it, as not to expose Joshua to the true horrors behind it. However, the charismatic father and husband is moved to a concentration camp one day along with his son. Dora, because she isn’t Jewish, is spared initially, but forces the guards to take her as well. To most attempting to create a nonplussed illusion, this would be the end, but Guido dismisses all of his son’s concerns by explaining that everything in the camp is part of a big contest that the family has entered, where you have to earn one thousand points in order to win a big tank, which he tells Joshua is being built in the midst of the senseless labor actually occurring.
The lengths that this one man goes to in order to preserve the spirit and innocence of his son are, to say the least, inspiring. Benigni, who in addition to starring and directing, co-wrote the film, gives a truly marvelous performance. Through him, Guido is not just a caricature or an idea, but a real, full blooded and smart man who only knows love and hope. Rarely in movies does a character seem more genuine.
This is a love/hate kind of movie, and while the lovers far outweigh the haters, there are a fair number of critics who have complained that mixing comedy and the Holocaust was an exploitive failure. While everyone’s certainly entitled to their individual voice, this is a completely false statement. Perhaps they were not watching fully, perhaps they only wanted to push an agenda. An examination of Life is Beautiful reveals that the only idea that is explicitly mocked is that of Nazism itself, and its supporters. An example of this comes early in the film, where a scene at a dinner party sees one of the guests criticizing a math problem that seven year olds in Germany were given: if people like cripples and the mentally handicapped cost the state four marks a day, and there are three hundred thousand, how much money would it save to have them all executed? The satire displayed is how the only complaint risen by the guests who interact with this statement is the difficulty of the math involved – the message conveyed by the sequence portrays the Nazi supporters as foolish and oblivious, and this truth is the only thing specifically targeted as ridiculous in the entire film.
There’s a higher amount of light comedy that surrounds the first half hour or so, and there is a perfectly justifiable reason for its existence: to show what kind of an imaginative and funny person our protagonist is. The scenes at the concentration camp are handled seriously in form, only showing Guido’s attempts to protect his son through humor as anything to smile over. From this viewpoint, it’s an undeniable fact that there is nothing but respect for the ghastly events that occurred during the Holocaust.
Life is Beautiful is ambitious, and it works. Featuring a great score by Nicola Piovani along with the other great creative aspects in acting and writing, this is a spellbinding movie, a tale of devotion in times of despair and darkness. I wish there were more people in real life like Guido.