PG-13 | 1h 56min | Comedy, Drama, Romance | 1997
Comedies that feature sensitive topics such as the Holocaust used to be more common. When done right, filmmakers with their hearts in the right place (and the talent to pull it off) have always known that comedy is a great way to not only break down barriers between people but also provoke discussion and draw attention to important historical events and causes.
But lately, these types of films have become scarcer. The only one that comes to mind in recent times that successfully merges the seemingly strange bedfellows of comedy and horrific tragedy is 2019’s “Jojo Rabbit”—about a member of the Hitler Youth who discovers that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their attic.
But a 1997 film covered some of the same ground but in an ingeniously different way. “Life Is Beautiful” was written by, directed by, and stars Roberto Benigni. It deftly combines a brilliant comedic tone with the brutal nightmare visited upon Jews as they were systematically rounded up and sent to Nazi death camps.
Before and at the Camp
The film begins in 1939, with the wildly imaginative Guido Orefice (Benigni) and his bosom buddy Ferruccio (Sergio Bini Bustric) traveling to Tuscany in their native Italy. The two are from the countryside and want to move to a big city for better opportunities. Guido plans to work as a waiter in his well-to-do uncle’s swanky hotel until he can afford to open a bookstore.
Almost immediately, Guido meets (or rather catches) the woman who will become his main romantic interest, Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), as she falls out of a barn after being stung by a wasp. The entire first act of the film revolves around Guido’s frequent run-ins with Dora and displays his buffoon-like humor that wraps around a deceptively perceptive mind. We also get glimpses of fascist Italy and the upper-crust society that embraces it.
One of the upper-crusters is none other than Dora’s fiancé, Amico (Claudio Alfonsi). An ethically compromised sycophant, Amico coincidentally denies Guido a loan that would have allowed him to open a bookstore.
Dora eventually falls for Guido’s infectious personality, as well as his consistent and sincere affection for her—something she can’t find with Amico. Guido sweeps her away and the two marry.
The film’s second act begins years later. Guido and Dora are now married and living a happy and tranquil family life in Tuscany with their charming young son Giosué (Giorgio Cantarini). But we soon discover that things are far from idyllic.
Although Guido has realized his dream of owning a bookstore, the Nazis have moved into the city and increasingly harass and intimidate the Jews. Our hero is Jewish.
Two officious-looking men arrive at the bookstore and instruct Guido to accompany them to visit the Prefect, a high administrative officer. Later, when Guido returns to his store to close up, he sees the words “JEWISH STORE” scrawled across the building.
Things go from bad to worse when the Nazis begin rounding up the city’s Jews, including Guido and Giosué. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Dora returns home one afternoon and finds everything in disarray. She takes a few steps back in shock and quickly deduces that her husband and son have been swept away in the roundups.
Guido and Giosué are next seen in a line leading to a boxcar heading to a concentration camp. When little Giosué begins asking questions about the train, Guido deftly gives false answers; he fabricates that the two are going on an exclusive trip and lucky to have the last two tickets.
As the train departs, Dora arrives and insists that she be let on one of the boxcars as well. But when the train arrives at the camp, Guido and Dora see each other only briefly before being separated into areas by gender.
Managing to hide his son from the Nazis, Guido expands on the illusion that he’s created for the boy to shield him from the cruelty of their surroundings. He tells Giosué that they’re involved in one big, elaborate game and that they can win only if Giosué follows the rules—and thus, earns points. Once they reach 1,000 points, they’ll win.
I won’t spoil the rest of the film. Let’s just say it’s filled with a mixture of laughter and tears—but ultimately an uplifting tale of boundless, familial love, as well as selflessness and self-sacrifice in the face of unrelenting evil.
Watching Guido slave away during brutal forced labor inspired me to research more about the Nazi concentration camps, Benito Mussolini’s Italy, and other facets of that place and time. Maybe it was the sort of thought-provoking research that the filmmakers of “Life Is Beautiful” intended.
With outstanding performances by its core cast of Benigni, Braschi, and Cantarini, the entire supporting cast, and some incredibly careful handling of touchy subject matter, it’s no wonder this film is considered a masterpiece.
‘Life Is Beautiful (La Vita è Bella)’
Director: Roberto Benigni
Starring: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini
Running Time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Release Date: 1997
Rated: 5 stars out of 5