Life is Beautiful Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

They make buttons and soap out of us.
What are you talking about?
They burn us up in an oven.
Roberto Benigni, Giorgio Cantarini, and Nicoletta Braschi

At first glance, "Life is Beautiful", a comedy about the Holocaust seems perverse, or in the very least, in poor taste. And this perception is not helped by Italy's comic sensation Roberto Benigni (best known for his goofy, slap-happy antics in "Johnny Stecchino" and "The Monster") serving as writer, director, and lead actor for this production. Not surprisingly, Benigni has been accused of making a mockery of the Holocaust in "Life is Beautiful". Even though it seems to be an irreverent take on a sensitive subject matter, "Life is Beautiful" is a truly powerful film that manages to entertain, educate, and inspire with its potent combination of humor, poignancy, and dignity.

Take me away.

The film's first hour deceptively plays out like a breezy little romantic comedy, a vehicle that perfectly matches Benigni's off-the-wall comedic antics. Guido (Benigni) is a happy-go-lucky buffoon roaming through the countryside of fascist Italy in 1939, on his way to work at the hotel belonging to his uncle. Along the way, he is smitten by a beautiful schoolteacher named Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni's real-life wife), who literally falls out of the sky and into his lap. However, this chance encounter is only the beginning, as these two fated lovers continue to bump into one another. And although Dora is to be wed to a surly civil servant, this inconvenience does not deter Guido from his efforts to woo his 'princess'. Of course, true love prevails, and the two sweethearts ride away on horseback, get married, and raise their son Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini).

They moved everything around tonight! Look where they put the kitchen!

Five years later, the town that Guido and Dora live in has become quite a different place, with soldiers patrolling the streets and its Jewish-Italian denizens subject to persecution. Without warning, Guido and his family are taken into custody and shipped off to a concentration camp by train. Upon arrival, the women and men are separated, leaving Guido to look after Joshua, and Dora to fend for herself. As Dora struggles on in the vain hope of being given the chance to see her husband and son again, Guido attempts to shelter his son from the horrors of the concentration camp's reality by creating the illusion that it is all an elaborate game. A game in which points are collected for various activities (such as staying hidden, following orders, or maintaining silence), and the first person to collect 1000 points wins a tank. At first, it is easy to divert his son's attention from the misery around them, but as the conditions at the camp progressively worsen, Guido finds it increasingly difficult to maintain the illusion. Even more troubling, the genocidal practices of the Nazis are a constant threat to Guido's chances of ever seeing Dora again.

Take everything off! You'll get it back after the shower!

On its own, the first half of "Life is Beautiful" is energetic, but not spectacular, as it plays out like a disjointed series of comic sketches with a heavy emphasis on oozing sentimentality. Benigni's antics as a harmless clown feel right at home in this mildly amusing sequence. However, when seen in the context of what happens later, this seemingly cloying first act creates the emotional bond between the audience and Guido's family, and also serves as a counterpoint to the horrors that await them. In glaring contrast to the first half of the film, Guido is no longer a buffoon upon his arrival at the concentration camp-- he becomes a heroic figure that does whatever he can in order to survive and protect his family. In Guido's case, he uses his sense of humor and his ability to weave elaborate fictions as weapons. In essence, "Life is Beautiful" is not a comedy about the Holocaust... it is about one man's use of comedy to sustain faith and humanity in a seemingly hopeless situation. And it is because of this perspective that "Life is Beautiful" deserves to be called a 'masterpiece'.

Can I see Mommy?
When the game's over.

Though "Life is Beautiful" may start off as a light and breezy film of little substance, by the final fade-out, you cannot help but be moved. Poignant, inspiring, and bittersweet, this is Benigni's most mature and stirring work to date, easily qualifying it as one of the year's best films. Yes, life is beautiful, but as Benigni illustrates so effectively, it often requires courage, love, and sacrifice in order to protect it.

Images courtesy of Miramax Films. All rights reserved.

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