Life is Beautiful (1997)

"You've never ridden on a train, have you? They're fantastic! Everybody stands up, close together, and there are no seats!""You've never ridden on a train, have you? They're fantastic! Everybody stands up, close together, and there are no seats!"

“You’ve never ridden on a train, have you? They’re fantastic! Everybody stands up, close together, and there are no seats!”

In life there are certain topics of conversation that are too sensitive to be brought up let alone craft a feature film about that topic. The Holocaust is one of them yet as the years go by, different filmmakers are able to tell their stories in a unique way that doesn’t take away from how disturbing and horrifying those events were to the world let alone people of the Jewish religion. There have been powerful stories told about survival, perseverance, grief, and hope that can both be heartbreaking and uplifting simultaneously. Writer/director Roberto Benigni explores two different genres of film that can come across as unsettling to some in Life is Beautiful, Italian: La Vita è bella.

A Film about the Holocaust that has comedy infused in its dialogue and tone? That can’t possibly work. Yet, the genius of Roberto Benigni makes it work because the comedy isn’t overpowering to the overall message he’s trying to convey with his story. Roberto uses the comedy effectively as a tool of distraction rather than the focus. Life is Beautiful is a film with two halves. The first half is lighter that has the most use of comedy, its romantic in nature and sweet in its message. While the second half deals with the gravity of the Holocaust as the result of Nazi Germany’s quest for world domination. 

Even during the harsher scenes in the concentration camp, the comedy is used to preserve the innocence through the eyes of a young boy, Guido’s (Roberto Benigni) boy Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini). Guido explains what’s happening to Joshua as a game. First to 1000 points wins and the prize: a tank. With all the horrors surrounding the concentration camps Guido never relents in his protection of Joshua. From volunteering as a German translator in their bunk house to doing whatever it takes to hide Joshua from the showers to explaining the tattoos and star of David, Guido will do anything to save Joshua’s innocence. 

“The game starts now. You have to score one thousand points. If you do that, you take home a tank with a big gun. Each day we will announce the scores from that loudspeaker. The one who has the fewest points will have to wear a sign that says “Jackass” on his back. There are three ways to lose points. One, if you cry. Two, if you ask to see your mother. Three, if you’re hungry and ask for a snack. Forget it!”

With every deflection Guido, who is a naturally charismatic and positive person, loses a bit of that hope and positivity. Roberto is brilliant in his lead role with his facial expressions and how they change scene to scene, going from softer and playful to serious and hardened. Throughout their incarceration he still holds on to the idea of breaking out of the camp while saving the love of his life, his princess, Dora (Nicoletta Braschi).

Life is Beautiful starts with its tone on the lighter side. Having their car’s brakes go out, using the repetitive dialogue and while cutting off the German motorcade fooling the citizens of Arezzo is brilliantly balanced. The slapstick nature Roberto uses to land his jokes works within the confines of his story. It’s clear his comedic inspiration is Charlie Chaplin; he channels his spirit in the way Guido uses the environment to his advantage. From the moment Guido rescues Dora from her bee sting, their romance would play a major role in the plot to come. Whether its intentional or not, or pure circumstance, he makes it his mission to win her affection from the rude loan officer from the bank. 

Dora and Guido are the perfect match. Nicoletta’s subtleties in her acting implies Dora’s dissatisfaction with her fiancé while allowing Guido to swoop in as the prince charming and sweep her off her feet. Guido does everything right even when things are going wrong. The brakes go out yet again causing Guido to crash the car, he has a red carpet handy to roll out for her to walk on in the pouring rain. It’s the counterproductive nature of that sequence that makes his actions sincere enough to win her over. 

“My husband and son are on that train. I want to get on that train. Did you hear me? I want to get on that train.”

Throughout the story there are several storyline beats that that appear to come across as a one-time joke, single occurring scene or line of dialogue but make their way back as a lesson in later scenes. Joshua is not a fan of taking a bath or showering. Hes insistent on not cooperating with his parents when they plead with him to. This scene sets up a pivotal one later on when the elderly and children are to take a shower, which is really the gas chamber. Sadly, Guido’s Uncle Eliseo (Giustino Durano) doesn’t survive while Joshua again pleads to not take one. Guido recognizes the situation and thus saves Joshua’s life for the time being. Many of the earlier scenes foreshadow the future events. When Guido arrives at his uncle’s place, there’s a break in, some vases are broken but Uncle Eliseo is fine, no harm no foul. Revisiting the scene with Dora as the main character, we know what the door being open means – the worst has happened.  

Guido never loses hope in the second act, he’s strong when he has to be and weak when the weight of the situation piles on his shoulders. One of the more surprising moments comes with Doctor Lessing (Horst Buchholz). While Guido worked as a waiter, him and Doctor Lessing would trade riddles as a game. And then Doctor Lessing returns in the second act as a Nazi doctor in Guido’s camp. Guido’s hope is that Doctor Lessing will help him, Joshua and Dora escape but in reality, the only reason the doctor gave Guido an opportunity to wait tables was for a riddle. In that moment, one out of many Roberto nails his character. 

Life is Beautiful or La Vita è bella in Italian is sweet, charming, laugh out loud funny and heartbreaking. Roberto Benigni shines as Guido getting his inspiration from Chaplin. It’s a character study in the same way the film uses its horrifying subject matter to preserve the innocence of a child. Benigni took a risk and angered some by infusing comedy with such a serious moment in history, but he makes the comedy work within the realms of his script. His love story with Dora is beautiful while his relationship with Joshua is meant to inspire while bring a sense of hopefulness to the situation. If I were to rate Life is Beautiful, I’d rate it a 4.5 out of 5.

So, tell me, have you seen Life is Beautiful and if so, what do you think about it? Do you agree or disagree with me? Comment below or send me an email and let me know what you think. 

Life is Beautiful is directed by Roberto Benigni is Rated PG-13 and has an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes. Life is Beautiful was released on December 20, 1997 (Italy) and has a runtime of 2 hours and 2 minutes. Life is Beautiful can be purchased by online retailers such as iTunes, Amazon, Google and can be streamed on HBO Max.

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