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 Movie Review:
- One of the greatest movies ever made.

dir. Roberto Benigni at Cecchi Gori Group Tiger Cinematografica and Melampo Cinematografica
with Roberto Benigni (as Guido Orefice), Nicoletta Braschi (as Dora), Giustino Durano (as Guido's uncle), Sergio Bini Bustric (as Ferruccio Papini), Giorgio Cantarini (as Giosué Orefice)

(This review is written for those who have already seen the film.)

A year and a half ago, I took up my pen to lambaste a film which most of the world was flocking to theatres to see. It wasn’t the extent to which I disliked the film that provoked such a strong reaction. My review of TITANIC (1997) Review was more a consequence of the way in which I saw everyone else reacting to the film -– it appalled me that people could think so highly of such a seriously flawed movie.

Today I take up my pen for a similar reason, yet I have no intention of spewing forth venom. Rather I wish to defend a modern film which has been, in my opinion, far too harshly criticized by many. The film is LA VITE È BELLA –- known more commonly by its English title, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL -- the Italian film which won three Oscars including Best Foreign Film the same year that TITANICReview ran away with the rest of the statuettes. I’ve just seen LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL for the first time tonight and was thoroughly impressed by it. But don’t read this review if you haven’t yet seen the film. In fact, don’t read anything more about it at all until you’ve seen it. LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL is a film best watched without preconceived notions of what the film is about or even what kind of film it is. If you go into the theatre with expectations, you’re likely to be disappointed. But taken on its own, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL is a quite a film.


Now. LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL is one of those films that people apparently either like or they don’t. I happen to fall into the first category. I thought it was a beautiful film. There are those who have labeled it "a Holocaust film," or worse, "a comedy about the Holocaust."  But both these labels are unfortunate and unfair.  First and foremost, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL is a romance. The whole first hour is a wonderfully funny romantic comedy. Guido is already a natural joker, but when Dora falls out of the sky and captures his heart, he becomes a perfect clown through all his zany efforts to be near her. She doesn’t like the stuffy company she’s forced to keep -– hic! –- and can’t help but fall in love with this crazy waiter who thinks the world of her. There are obstacles, of course -– he’s Jewish, she’s a gentile; she’s already engaged to an important government official; they come from very different backgrounds and social worlds -- but there’s nothing a horse in the formal dining room can’t fix.  He's not exactly a knight errant, and his charger certainly isn't white, but Dora still rides off with Guido. They have a son. It’s his birthday. It even appears her family is ready to reconcile with her. Life is beautiful.

But then the film takes a sudden turn. With a little foreshadowing but no real warning, Guido and his son Giosué are whisked away in a truck, on their way to a concentration camp. It is at this point that the story, already very idyllic, begins to become unreal. Eager to hide the realities of what is happening to them from Giosué, his father creates a new reality; he tells his son it is all a game. The Nazis aren’t really bad guys; they’re just opponents in the game. No one is trying to hurt or kill anybody else; it’s all just part of the intense competition to win. We, as the audience, sympathize profoundly with what the father is trying to do for his child. If they are going to die, then they are going to die. It will happen soon enough and there’s no reason to traumatize the little boy by telling him what might happen. Why shouldn’t his last hours, if indeed they are his last hours, be happy ones? While to a certain extent, the game becomes a means of hiding Giosué and assuring his physical safety, it is more an attempt to spare the boy the emotional turmoil that would be caused by knowing what kind of "opposition" he and his father are really up against.  Guido must, as much as possible, hide the truth from his son by reinventing it.

We believe in what the father is doing for his son, yet in the back of our minds, we know how impossible the whole thing is. A death camp is not a game. It’s real. And even calling gas chambers "showers" doesn’t disguise the fact that people who go in never come out. How long could an inmate really hide a little boy in the barracks, leaving him alone all day? How long could a father as talented and devoted as Guido really continue to find answers to Giosué’s probing questions? If Benigni had given us a moment to stop and think, we would have realized how outlandish the whole idea is. But instead we are caught up in the invented reality of Guido’s game and the love for his son that compels him to continue with it. Guido even manages to share glimpses of this rosy world he has created with Dora through the loud speaker and the phonograph. Risking his son's discovery by letting him broadcast over the camp PA system?  Still more implausibility, we would realize if we had time to consider it, but Benigni doesn't permit us such luxuries. Despite the dramatic change of setting, the film is still about devotion and family and relationships. It never ceases to be a love story.

Much of the film community has staunchly criticized LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, claiming that Benigni was making a farce of the death camp.  They claim he wanted the audience to believe in Guido's ability to overcome the horror with his little game, just as Guido wants Giosué to believe the game is the true reality. These critics point to the story's infeasibility as an outrageous insult to their intelligence and accuse Benigni of trying to depict an atrocity as horrible as the Holocaust through rose-colored glasses. His death camp is too roomy and bright, his prisoners too well-treated and healthy, and the film only hints at the real horrors which we know took place. While the evidence cited is no distortion of the facts of the film, these critics draw the wrong conclusions. Benigni is not trying to deceive the audience the way Guido is deceiving his son. In fact, he admits the story’s impossibility in one key scene: the brief conversation between Guido and Doctor Lessing in the officer’s dining room. How ironic to discover that the man on whom Guido had pinned all his hopes of escape, only wanted help with a riddle over which he was losing sleep. It is in Guido’s face as he gradually realizes what Doctor Lessing is really talking about, where Benigni admits to the audience that such a play as Guido is putting on could never really work. If it could, then this old friend from the Grand Hotel, whom he miraculously runs into at the death camp, would help him. Instead, by denying the audience this easy route to a happy ending, Benigni allows a flash of reality to infiltrate Guido’s carefully constructed image of the death camp. There is no escape -- only survival for those who are lucky.

As we know, Guido does not survive, but he does leave a legacy behind for his family. His gift to his wife is the survival of their son, and his gift to his son is an unscarred childhood memory, both of his father and of one of the most horrific experiences anyone in the 20th Century had lived through. On an analytical level, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL is a film about attempting to create reality. Just as the Nazis attempted to create a world dominated by a master race through the extermination of masses of people, Guido too, in another way, attempted to create for his son a different world than that which they were actually experiencing. The motives were different, the means employed were certainly different, but the goal was the same. And in the end, just as the Nazis failed to bring their imagined reality to fruition, so too did Guido fail. For although he was able to make the game a reality in his son’s eyes for a time, in the end it was still just a game. No amount of pretending or counting points could stop the bullets that ended his life. His friend Ferruccio may have been able to change reality by force of will when he willed himself to sleep one night, but Schopenhauer’s philosophy couldn’t change reality for the Nazis, and it didn’t work for Guido either. Both their attempts to create their own realities ultimately failed.

Yet, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL is a happy film. In the end, Guido is not seen as a failure, but as a wonderful and loving husband and father. Because his motives were unselfish and his means benign, although he too never succeeded in willing into being his own reality, his legacy will be forever different from the Nazis. This is not a film about the Holocaust, which is why so many, who expected such a film as they entered the theatre, came out so disappointed. LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL is from first to last a romance. It is about love and family and the strength of both in the face of obstacles, no matter how extreme. As such a film, it is a wonderful success, and those who denounce it, criticize it for not being the kind of film they believe it should have been, rather than for the way in which it is the film it is.

Reviewed: January 12, 2000

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