pg | 1h 56min | Drama, Comedy | 1997
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Roberto Benigni’s classic ‘Life is Beautiful’ (1997) which won three Oscars (Best Actor, Foreign Language Film and Music).
This tragicomedy tells the story of an early 20th century Italian Jewish waiter, a Chaplinesque Guido (Roberto Benigni who writes, stars and directs the film); he marries a schoolteacher, Dora (Benigni’s wife, Nicoletta Braschi), and they live a happy life with their five-year-old boy, Giosuè (Giorgio Cantarini).
Guido’s slapstick, often silly actions turn every mundane moment into something magical. Thus, their ordinary lives seem extraordinary. His gift for concocting coincidences in the middle of a conversation carries his listeners away, sometimes literally. Courting Dora for example, he crashes at the door of his school, makes fun of a school inspector, shows up at the opera and steals her from his fiancé, in the pouring rain.
Then, the Nazis destroy their little paradise, condemning father and son to a concentration camp; Dora, not being Jewish, is initially spared. More on that later.
Confronted with hard work and hunger in the camp, Guido, smiling and defiant, evokes a game that forces a still playful Giosuè to remain silent, to remain hidden, without even crying for food or water or to see his mother. Because if he follows his father’s “rules”, he will “win” enough “points” for a prize: not the miniature tank of his dreams, but a real tank, beyond his dreams.
In reality, it’s just a trick by Guido to distract his son, and maybe himself. Guido thinks that, thus cocooned, they will have a chance to survive the atrocities of the camp.
The film is always, unjustly, accused of usurping or softening the Holocaust. It does no such thing. On the contrary, it condemns inhumanity. It begins as a joyful romantic farce, but suddenly turns into a mournful reflection on hope and its flip side, despair.
Benigni does not like scenes of sadism, torture or blood; the public already has it from other filmmakers. The Holocaust here is a backdrop, not the main event. Benigni’s camera doesn’t show us much, but enough is seen in the troubled eyes of his beloved trio.
Benigni’s eyes are elsewhere: on love and truth. His film argues that love is easy to spot. Find sacrifice, and you will find love. Lying? It accompanies every selfishness, every hatred, every pride. To like? Even playing hide and seek against lies, love itself can never be fake.
A refugee, even if hiding in plain sight, is not deceptive if he is only fleeing from tyranny, protecting his family or protecting his freedom. And it is the truth of love which, seemingly by magic, creates the hope of enduring suffering.
Love is not blind or weak, but clairvoyant, strong
At some point, Dora rushes to the train that takes Guido and Giosuè to a camp. She pleads with the commander. There must be a mistake. He verifies. There are not any. Father and son are on the list. She is not. The smoke billowing from the train’s chimney looks like a threat, a harbinger of furnaces that await them at camp.
Though she senses, however faintly, this horrific fate awaiting her, Dora “chooses” to board with them. A stunned commander complies. But Dora is clear. Their life is his. If there is something to endure, they will endure it together.
Is she blind? Or clairvoyant? Does her total dependence on giving and receiving love make her weak? Or strong?
For Benigni, it is the supremacists who are “blind” to the humanity around them, denying the truth and worshiping the lie.
As a waiter, Guido entertains restaurant patron Dr. Lessing (Horst Buchholz), whose genius fondness for Guido is a reward for satisfying his weakness for puzzles.
As a prisoner at the camp, however, Guido discovers to his horror that Lessing, as a Nazi captain, fails to “see” his favorite server. He sees nothing more than a puzzle solver and, ultimately, not even that. A rare moment when Guido, usually smiling, is serious, speechless, stunned.
In touching irony, the captain, imprisoned in his mind, begs his Jewish prisoner: “Help me, please, for heaven’s sake help me!”
Benigni’s cinematographic tool is irony. And he uses it to reveal his sense of truth, of love. Showing his nephew around the house, Uncle Eliseo de Guido said with mock indifference: “It’s the bed. Legend has it that Garibaldi slept there… Nothing is more necessary than the useless.
It is Benigni who plays on what can be compared to the typical high society table discussion of the time. Because, a few minutes later, his camera captures Dora at the table, hearing her elite hosts passionately discussing the “savings” the state would make if the cripples, the insane, the “useless” epileptics were eliminated.
Benigni also plays on truth and falsehood. The “truthful” but brutal state acts in broad daylight: ransacking homes, arresting innocent people, openly brainwashing school children in a classroom. The “lying” Guido, however, continues to disguise himself: as a prince, as a driver, as a crook with endless surprises for his son and, in a vain attempt to reach Dora, even as a prisoner.
Who is lying? Who is truthful?
Love is nothing if not shared
One night at the camp, Guido, as a temporary waiter at the Nazi officers’ quarters, serves officers and their families. If only for a few hours away from the misery of the camp, he is surrounded by beautiful clothes, exotic food, wine.
And music on a gramophone. He took the opportunity to shoot the moving “Barcarolle” by Jacques Offenbach, who first brought him closer to Dora. Guido does not play music. He tries to reach Dora in a remote prison dorm. As Benigni’s camera moves up and down the courtyard, you feel each melancholy chord uniting them in an invisible bond, unmarked by the brick walls and barbed wire.
Here, it is not shared joy that unites them, but shared pain. Their love doesn’t care what life throws at them. As long as they can share it, it won’t matter, even if it’s heartbreak.
When moral darkness overwhelms
The stoic anguish of those who survived the real Nazi camps (Rubino Romeo Salmoni who wrote the book “In the End I Beat Hitler” and Benigni’s father, Luigi) influenced Benigni’s storyline. Well-known therapist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl seems to have done it too. Frankl’s landmark book, “Man’s Search For Meaning” (1946), was inspired by his years in a camp. Her psychotherapeutic journey affirms that a “determined” life becomes its own incentive to endure life’s tragedies.
For Guido, it’s simpler. The highest “goal” of his life is to love and to be loved. Anything less and it withers.
Frankl died the year this film was released. As if in homage, Guido adamantly celebrates every burst of sunny light, even in the face of overwhelming moral darkness. In the indescribable desolation of this concentration camp, Guido cherished only two sparkles of light: Dora and Giosuè. For him, they were enough.
‘Life is Beautiful’
Director: Roberto Benigni
With: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Duration: 1 hour 56 minutes
Release date: December 20, 1997
Rated: 5 out of 5 stars