Life is Beautiful (La Vita é Bella)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Roberto Benigni (Guido Orefice), Nicoletta Braschi (Dora), Giorgio Cantarini (Joshua), Giustino Durano (Uncle), Sergio Bini Bustric (Ferruccio Orefice), Marisa Paredes (Dora's Mother), Horst Buchholz (Dr. Lessing), Lidia Alfonsi (Guicciardini)
The title of Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful" ("La Vita é Bella") is, like the similarly titled "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), both sincere and ironic at the same time. The title is not a simplistic aphorism, not an all-encompassing proclamation that life is beautiful, but rather a statement about a person's will to see life as beautiful, even under the worst conditions. Therein lies the irony and the division Benigni makes between reality and imagination, and the power of the latter over the former.
Benigni is one of Italy's most popular movie stars, but he is known primarily in America by the few who saw him in bit roles in "Down by Law" and "Night on Earth," and the 25 people who actually saw "Son of the Pink Panther" (1993), Blake Edwards' ill-fated attempt to revive the "Pink Panther" series and mainstream Benigni at the same time. It's probably best that it didn't happen, because Benigni is much more comfortable in his native-language films, where he is not only a Chaplinesque master of physical comedy and pratfalls, but also a wizard at punning dialogue and mile-a-minute conversations, many of which recall the great screwball comedies of the 1930s.
The first half of "Life is Beautiful" is a screwball comedy, taking place in 1939 in Italy; it opens with Benigni's character, Guido Orefice, literally crashing into town in a car without brakes. Guido is a whimsical dreamer, a born clown who is perpetually happy and lovably goofy. He makes his living as a waiter although he wants to own a bookstore, and he spends most of the film's first hour charming a young schoolteacher named Dora (Nicoletta Braschi). This part of the film is light-hearted and whimsical, with the entire point to develop Guido's carefree spirit and to allow him to steal Dora away from a Fascist city clerk who intends to marry her.
Cut to 1945, and Guido and Dora are now happily married, Guido owns a book shop, and they have a five-year-old son, Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini). They are a contented family, full of love and affection for each other; but dark horizons are looming. We get the first whiff of danger when we see Fascist troops marching down their town's main street, and someone paints "Jewish Store" across Guido's book shop. The early portions of the film also contained some foreshadowing, such as when Guido's Uncle's (Giustino Durano) horse is covered with paint and labeled "Jewish Horse." That Guido takes the horse and uses it in his climactic stealing of Dora from her betrothed also foreshadows his unexpected approach to dealing with Nazism.
Because Guido is half-Jewish, he and Joshua are rounded up and shipped by train to a unnamed concentration camp. Dora is a gentile and thus spared, but she chooses to go along with them because she cannot stand to see her family taken away from her. It is at this point that "Life is Beautiful" becomes a wholly different movie from the first half. The waggish, screwball tone of the opening hour gives way to the dark horrors of Nazism, and the colorful photography and lavish settings of Guido's free life are replaced by smoky skies, gray buildings, and dark-suited stormtroopers that enforce his imprisonment.
But, even in this predicament, Guido refuses to give in to the Nazis, and he concocts a scheme to protect his son from the horrors around them by convincing Joshua that it's all a big game. The Nazis are just men "playing the part of the mean guys who yell," and the concentration camp is really a resort, where everybody is involved in an elaborate game where the objective is to amass 1,000 points and win a real tank.
As new developments arise, Guido is constantly altering the rules, convincing Joshua to "play the game" in a way that will not only protect him from the horrors psychologically and spiritually, but also physically. When all the other children in the death camp mysteriously "disappear," Guido convinces Joshua that they are actually hiding, and so should he; therefore, Joshua is able to escape the gas showers that surely claimed the lives of the other children. There are a number of heart-stopping moments when it seems Guido's game of denial will be broken, but somehow he always manages to ad-lib something that not only keeps the illusory game alive for Joshua, but also avoids letting the Nazis on to what he is doing.
"Life is Beautiful" is a polarizing movie, one that has won as much acclaim as it has vicious criticism. Championed as a loving fable about the endurance of the human spirit while also attacked for "dumbing down" the Holocaust and betraying the experience of millions of Jews, this is a film that cannot be taken lightly or without thought. Although an early voice-over narration informs us that this will be a "simple story," it is no such thing. In fact, Benigni and co-screenwriter Vincenzo Cerami have fashioned a deep, complex fable that is as uplifting as it is dark. The juxtaposition of Guido's clownish charm with the inhumanity of the Holocaust is both stark and utterly appalling, yet it works because the film never panders.
The complexity that underlies the film runs deep, and many may choose to overlook it. The final freeze-frame that concludes "Life is Beautiful" is certainly victorious, but like the finale of "It's a Wonderful Life," there is still the pervasive feeling that evil has had its victory as well. After all, six million people lost their lives in the Holocaust, and that is a fact that hangs heavily over Benigni's film, something of which I think he was keenly aware.
When critics argue that the film "dumbs down" the Holocaust by not dealing with it in the kind of stark, somber, and violent terms of Spielberg's "Schindler's List" (1993), they are missing the point. "Life is Beautiful" is about its characters, not about the Holocaust. Nazis, Fascism, and concentration camps are the canvas on which Benigni paints his tale. The thematic point of the film is the strength of the human spirit under the most adverse conditions, and what conditions could be more adverse than being locked in a concentration camp?
Granted, Benigni's camera generally avoids the worst aspects of the camp--genocide in the gas chambers and ovens is only mentioned in dialogue, and there are only two sequences where Guido finds himself truly face-to-face with the violence. However, by avoiding showing the violence earlier in the film, it makes the scenes where we do see it all the more powerful because it has been built up in our minds. Just because Benigni's camera doesn't linger on the atrocities doesn't mean he ignores them. They are always there, just beyond the frame, and only the most uninformed viewer will not feel their presence.
"Life is Beautiful" is a rare film, one that takes great chances with its material and succeeds in grand fashion. It is both hilarious and heart-breaking, illuminating and subversive. It gives the audience a much-needed happy ending, but that happy ending has an asterisk on it--it is not quite as happy as it seems.
On the surface level, the endings shows us that evil can be conquered and that the human spirit can only be broken if it allows itself to be. However, underneath that level, the subtext of the ending refers back to what exists outside of the frame, the knowledge the audience holds of what has happened and what sacrifices have been made; it points out that we can hide from the horrors of life for a while, but they will always be there when we emerge. Thus, the theme that life is beautiful is contained in the combination of the ending's two halves: evil will always exist, but the human spirit will always be able to conquer it.
©1999 James Kendrick