Life is Beautiful (1997)
Directed by Roberto Benigni
Cast: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini.
1997 116 minutes
Rated: (for adult themes).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 20, 1999.
In many ways Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful" is a courageous motion picture. After all, I don't believe anyone in the past has had the audacity to set a comedy against the backdrop of the very serious Holocaust, nor would anyone want to. By creating such a light-hearted tone for a film about one of the most cruel and heartbreaking periods in recent history, it would be easy to offend viewers, especially those whom have a personal connection with the Holocaust. Benigni, however, who directed the film and stars in the lead role, somehow succeeds at such a genre-bending convention (or unconvention, if you think about it), finding just the right balance between humor and drama so that the film in no way is condescending to the subject matter.
The film begins as the Jewish-Italian Guido, a happy-go-lucky fellow (Benigni), arrives in a postcard-perfect Tuscan village where he stays at his uncle's home and obtains a job as a waiter at a nearby ritzy restaurant. Almost immediately, Guido runs into, or shall we say is hit by, the beautiful, kind schoolteacher Dora (Nicoletta Braschi) when she accidentally falls from a barn. After a pleasant and rather mystifying meeting, fate seems destined to bring the pair together when he runs into her a few more times (literally, when he crashes his bike, and figuratively, at the school where she works). The first hour of "Life is Beautiful" is a winning, sweet, and often funny romantic comedy, and Benigni constantly reminded me of the old comic greats Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.
Seven years pass and we discover that Guido and Dora are now married and have a young son (Giorgio Cantarini). All is well in their lives, and at the bookstore Guido owns, until anti-semitism slowly begins to make appearances in the village, first by having store signs put up saying, "No Jews or Dogs," and then by having their own home torn apart. Ultimately, Guido and his son are taken away to a concentration camp and are split apart from Dora, who is forced to go with the female prisoners. Through the horrors of the Holocaust which are only briefly shown in a shocking and haunting image of a mountain of dead bodies, Guido keeps his spirits up and tells his son that everything is only a game, and if they are the first people to reach one one-hundred points, they will win the grand prize: a real, life-size tank to ride home on.
For its first hour, "Life is Beautiful" is a film full of magic, recalling the days of those '40s and '50s musicals. In its romantic story involving Guido and Dora, the film contains an undeniable innocence that is rarely seen in today's films, and as our protagonist, Guido (effervescently played by Benigni) is a pure charmer. In its second half, the film becomes more tricky, since it was up to Benigni to keep the picture's light tone while still being realistic about the life of a Jew in a concentration camp. When taking into consideration Steven Spielberg's brilliant 1993 Holocaust drama, "Schindler's List," the Holocaust in "Life is Beautiful" is like a walk in the park. No on-screen violence is depicted, although there are hints of the gas chambers that look like showers, but on the other hand, the film not once actually treats the Holocaust as a joke. Instead, the picture attempts to portray a hopeful and spirited man that unfortunately happens to be a Jew in the 1940's and therefore is sent away to what is basically a horror show. If the film had actually become heavy on violence and brutality in this section, then the tone would have been ruined. It is clearly due to Benigni's artistry in filmmaking that he is easily able to mix these two differing elements so that it is neither too goofy or too sad.
"Life is Beautiful" honestly only missteps once, but it is in this flaw that detains the film from being a possible contender as one of the ten best of 1998. The penultimate sequence took a sudden u-turn into the realms of a sort of fantasy and, without giving it away, I found its last plot development to be entirely unbelievable and abrupt, as if Benigni was trying to rush to a quick conclusion so that the film would be over. Perhaps if the running time had contained an extra ten minutes, these occurrences would not have been so difficult to swallow. As it remains, the unfortunate ending takes away the possible greatness "Life is Beautiful" so clearly held, but the film is still an achievement, particularly because of Benigni, who took an almost impossible concept and brought it vibrantly to life.
© 1997 by Dustin Putman