Life Is Beautiful (1997)

directed by Roberto Benigni

Plot Summary
Soon before World War II in Italy, Guido and his friend travel from the country to the city in order to get jobs--Guido eventually hopes to open a bookstore. In the meantime he works in a hotel with his uncle and courts a schoolteacher named Dora. Guido’s clownish charm eventually wins Dora away from her odious fiancé. A few years pass, and Guido and Dora have married and had a son, Joshua. It turns out that Guido is Jewish, and he and his son are sent to a concentration camp; Dora refuses to separate and is deported with them. Guido convinces his son that the entire camp is being run as a game of which the winner receives a real tank. Guido is able to protect his son and, as the camp is being cleared out, asks him to hide so that his father can find Dora. However, Guido is captured by guards and killed. The next day, Joshua emerges from his hiding place to find an empty camp. A U.S. tank arrives, and Joshua gets to ride in it until he is reunited with his mother.

Commentary


Life Is Beautiful is a funny and touching film that works best if one doesn’t take it too seriously. This may be a problem since at least half of the film deals directly with the Holocaust by taking place in a concentration camp. Using this dismal historic setting as the backdrop for a fictional tragicomedy may not seem like a great idea, but it’s hard not to fall for the film’s charm and hopeful optimism that something positive can be extracted from the worst situation imaginable. It is much more effective on a general level dealing with basic concepts such as love and faith than on a more specific, detailed level that would be closer to historical reality.

The first gag sets the tone for a comedy that dabbles in some political realities as Guido unwittingly gives the Fascist salute to onlookers waiting for a government process to pass through. Early on, Guido is shown to be a resourceful, quick thinker who is able to suggest exactly what is already prepared to a restaurant customer; this ability will be necessary to maintain his son’s fantasy in the latter part of the film. Another example would be the impersonation of a school inspector that Guido undertakes in order to woo his "princess", a schoolteacher named Dora. Benigni turns this inspection into a humorous prank by pointing out the absurdity of the Fascist dictum that was supposed to be taught. He mentions that he was chosen by "racist scientists" and begins showing off how well formed his ear is and the perfection of his bellybutton, ending with his "Aryan exit" out the window. Guido’s perfect evening with Dora uses the repetition of events earlier in the film along with coincidence to make events seem divinely inspired. Dr. Lessing’s answer to a riddle and Guido’s hat switching are made to seem totally spontaneous and appropriate in the couple’s conversations. This repetition of certain elements also becomes apparent during the second half of the picture; in a way, Guido’s innocent deception of Dora in this sequence foreshadows how he must later deal with his son to keep him alive.

Another sequence portrays the preposterous logic that was sweeping the country by showing one teacher discussing a math problem that she finds too difficult for her students. This difficulty, rather than the fact that the question deals with eliminating people, is what upsets her, and Dora’s fiancé similarly overlooks this problem when describing how it can be solved simply. In a comical scene, Guido rescues Dora from the party on his uncle’s horse that had been painted on by Fascist hoodlums. This also supports a central point of the film in how Guido can always put a positive spin on negative events. With Guido having won Dora over, the film jumps forward a few years to show their happy family that now includes a son, Joshua. When Joshua asks Guido about a sign prohibiting Jews and dogs, his father describes that it is a completely arbitrary selection and suggests they put up a similar sign regarding spiders and Visigoths. Again, the film is mixing politics and comedy in an effort to debunk these racist ideas. The film has, up to this point, presented a joyful time in its characters lives and now prepares to contrast it with their painful future. When Guido and his son, joined by Dora, are herded on a train, the movie begins to shift into a darker tone—although not as dark as one might expect.

Guido immediately begins trying to protect his child’s innocence by telling him that the train ride is part of a vacation he has planned. He continues his improvisation once they reach their destination by suggesting the camp is part of a game, thereby establishing a way he can control his son’s behavior as well as shield Joshua from the monstrous function of the camp. Using a Nazi death camp as the setting for an imaginary game is a risky move, but perhaps the film suggests that the insane logic of the camp requires an equally senseless reasoning in order to survive there. Crucial to convincing his son of this game’s existence is a scene where Guido translates a guard’s instructions, one of the comic highlights of the film. Benigni’s gift for comedy aside, one reason for this segment’s humor is that the viewer is not quite sure where the film is going once inside the camp; this surprising scene assumes that Guido’s clowning will be present even here. It is also simply an excellent subversion of the frightening, rigid authority represented by the guard barking out commands. The film also shows Guido and other prisoners doing strenuous work around the camp, but Benigni also turns this into a bit of a joke as well. Joshua refuses to take a shower with the other children, even after Guido’s dangerous insistence. His stubbornness benefits him in this case, and the film had set up this quality earlier to make the scene more plausible.

A sad and earnest moment occurs as Guido’s uncle is about to be executed. A female guard trips in front of him, and he catches her and helps her up out of his instinctive human kindness and compassion, qualities that she has had to deaden. Another sad and disappointing scene involves Guido’s contact with his friend from the restaurant, Dr. Lessing, who happens to be a Nazi official. When he makes an effort to meet with Guido, there seems to be some hope for the entire family, but he actually only wanted help with a riddle. His character could be interpreted as being racked with guilt to the point of insanity so that his obsession with riddles works like a defense mechanism for his mind. His irrationality is another symbol for the twisted reasoning that led to places like the concentration camps. Slightly less effective are the scenes where Guido tries to contact Dora either through the loudspeaker or with the record player, which try to inject a little too much sentimentality into the picture. Near the climax of the film, Guido tells Joshua to hide in a small, metal box, an act that has also been reflected in an earlier scene. From here his son sees Guido playing the clown to the very end, maintaining the illusion that everything will be all right. But this illusion is finally broken for the viewer when Guido is killed, even though one might have hoped for the fantasy to continue and to see him coming back around the corner wearing the soldier’s uniform. However, Joshua’s illusion continues for the length of the film as a real U.S. tank shows up, and he is reunited with his mother. One of the themes of the film, then, is the desire to protect the innocent from the horrors of life at any cost—to show them that life is beautiful. That the film attempts to do this in such an extreme situation is admirable, yet that it compromises the reality of this situation is apparently inevitable.

The film is primarily shot in the classical Hollywood style where all the filmic elements serve the story. Only when Joshua crawls out of his hiding place to find a desolate camp do compositional and pictorial elements seem to be emphasized. Amazingly, for the subject matter that it tackles, the film seems quite buoyant. Although Life Is Beautiful wouldn’t be recommended as a learning experience about the Holocaust, it is a charming and emotional work of fiction.

6 of 10


Please send me any comments you have about this review by clicking here.
© 1999

Back to the index of films.