“Buongiorno principessa!” Two simple words that bought a huge smile to my face during a film which has more emotional peaks and troughs than a very emotionally peaky troughy thing. Life is Beautiful or La vita è bella in its original Italian is a passionate and multi award winning comedy-drama set in Italy during The Second World War. Its dark themes are counterbalanced with some delightful comedy and a sweet story about a man trying to protect his young son from the harsh realities of the war. Italian Jew Guido (Roberto Benigni – also director) is a wildly imaginative and romantic soul who woos a local woman in amusing and inventive ways. Fast forward a few years and Guido and his wife Dora (Nicoletta Braschi) have a cute little boy called Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini). When Guido and Joshua are taken to a work camp by the Germans, Guido puts in tireless effort to hide the truth from his son, telling him that they are playing a game for points in which the winning team will win a real life tank.
Life is Beautiful really is beautiful in of itself. It’s one of the sweetest films I’ve seen and is amongst many people’s (including my Dad’s and girlfriend’s) favourite films of all time. Not only is it a good-natured story but it’s also very bold. Upon its initial release it faced some criticism for making light of the Holocaust but personally I don’t think it does anything to mock that horrific event or undermine the suffering of the millions who had to endure abysmal treatment under the Nazis and their collaborators. Instead it displays the triumph of human spirit and the deep love of a father for going to great lengths to protect his son.
Great comedy has long courted controversy and set about exploring taboo subjects. Almost a hundred years ago Charlie Chaplin made Shoulder Arms, a film set in the trenches of The First World War while the fighting was still raging. The movie drew criticism from people who said that the subject wasn’t a fitting stage for a comedy but it was immensely popular amongst soldiers. Over twenty years later Chaplin made The Great Dictator, parodying Hitler and Mussolini and helping to show America what was really happening in Europe. Comedies like those and Life is Beautiful allow us to poke fun at the authority figures who commit these awful acts as well as making heroes out of the little guys, the people who would otherwise be part of the faceless masses. There is no subject that it too taboo for comedy, it is only in how the content is delivered by which the choice should be judged. Here, it’s delivered perfectly.
The film takes its time to build up to the more sombre aspects of the plot but there are occasional, almost light reminders of the attitude towards Jews in the late thirties. Guido initially makes jokes about his uncle’s horse being graphitised and later hides the truth behind a ‘No Jews, No Dogs’ sign on a local shop from his son, stating that some people just don’t like some people. He suggests that another local shop has a ‘No Chinese, No Kangaroo’ policy. Because the anti-Semitism is slow to build but always in the background, the shift in tone when the film’s setting moves to a work camp is one of gentle, albeit shocking surprise. In the back of your mind, you always know what’s coming. Before we get that far though, the film is a romantic treat, amongst the pleasant I’ve seen.
Without wanting to bang on about Chaplin again, he was one of cinema’s masters of romantic comedy. Films such as City Lights and The Kid were beautifully crafted to include romance and comedy in equal measure and Life is Beautiful follows a similar pattern. Guido first meets Dora, his princess, when she falls from a hay loft into his arms. Later he continues to literally bump into her in amusing situations and she is surprised by the way he just happens to show up. In one scene he arrives at the school in which she teaches, impersonating an inspector from Rome. Later he saves her from a dull and rainy date in his car. The crowning sequence though is one in which he uses local knowledge and recent events to stun her with a series of seemingly improbable happenings such as a key falling from the sky, a dry hat appearing on his head and an answer to a question, given by a ‘stranger’. It’s an adorable scene which is cheeky, clever and romantic. The audience falls for it and so does Dora.
Guido puts his imaginative brain to even better use once confined to the labour camp. In order to shield his son’s eyes from the truth, he creates the imagined reality that they are taking part in a game (the sort of which would probably find a home on Saturday night television these days). Joshua has his doubts but trusts his father and through clever manipulation of his surroundings, Guido keeps his son safe, fed and alive. I won’t go into detail about much more of the plot in the camp but what I will say is that it includes some of the most beautiful, poignant and upsetting scenes that cinema can offer a person. It creates the sort of scenes which will make you cry tears of sadness and tears of joy within seconds of each other.
One of the film’s three Oscar wins came by way of its score. Personally I think the score is one of the weaker aspects of the film. It certainly adds to the comedy, tension, drama and sadness when required but in a film which contains such emotive themes and images, the overuse of the ‘happy’/’sad’ music felt unnecessary. It almost tells the audience ‘this is when you cry’, ‘this is when you laugh’ and I don’t think it needed to do that. The movie was nominated in the Best Picture, Director and Screenplay category at the Oscars and I wouldn’t have begrudged it winning any of those, particularly a Best Screenplay win. Another of its three victories came in the Best Actor category.
Benigni found himself up against some tough competition in that category but ultimately beat the likes of Tom Hanks and Edward Norton, who would have got my vote for his performance in American History X. Benigni’s performance though is fantastic and while not mesmerising, it’s certainly memorable. He creates some great moments of drama and sadness, coupled with huge belly laughs and his face says a lot at times when the dialogue falls away. Giorgio Cantarini is also brilliant as the young Joshua, further proving that Italy is a world leader at creating films with really cute little boy characters (See Cinema Paradiso, Bicycle Thieves). The film was shot in some stunning Tuscan and Umbrian towns and cities which had a genuine middle of the century feel. The buildings looked to have stood for hundreds of years but were dressed, as the characters were, in authentic World War Two era costume.
Before re-watching this film and while watching it again I was thinking to myself that it was a solid 9/10 movie but now I’ve come to actually write about it, there’s nothing I can think of which warrants taking the final point away. I was never bored and always enthralled either with laughter or sadness and sometimes both simultaneously. The film looks great and the acting is highly accomplished while the story is simply one of those once in a decade tales which ties everything together, leaving you emotionally drained and both wanting more but leaving you thoroughly satisfied.
- Benigni's Best Actor Oscar marked only the second time in history that a Director had directed himself to Oacar glory. The first was Laurence Olivier in Hamlet.
- Nicoletta Braschi is the real life wife of Roberto Benigni.
- The film's title comes from a Leon Trotsky quote. While in exile and with the knowledge that Stalin's assassins were approaching his saw his wife in the garden and wrote the words 'Life is Beautiful'.