Film & TV

Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Life Is Beautiful’: A Fable of Love and Truth

Love’s truth creates the hope to endure suffering
BY Rudolph Lambert Fernandez TIMEJuly 20, 2022 PRINT

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 Score).

This tragi-comedy is about an early 20th century Italian-Jewish waiter, a Chaplinesque Guido (Roberto Benigni who writes, acts in, and directs the film). He marries a schoolteacher, Dora (Benigni’s wife Nicoletta Braschi), and they live a blissful life with their 5-year-old boy, Giosuè (Giorgio Cantarini).

Guido’s slapstick actions, often silly, turn every mundane moment into something magical. So, their ordinary lives feel extraordinary. His gift for concocting coincidences mid-conversation sweeps his listeners off their feet, sometimes quite literally. In wooing Dora for instance, he gate-crashes her school, goofing around as a school inspector, and he shows up at the opera and steals her from her fiancé, in pouring rain.

Then, Nazis destroy their little heaven, condemning father and son to a concentration camp. Dora, not being Jewish, is first spared. More on that later.

Facing hard labor and hunger in the camp, a smilingly defiant Guido conjures a game that requires a still-playful Giosuè to stay quiet and stay hidden, not even crying for food or water or to see his mother. For if he plays by his father’s “rules,” he’ll “win” enough “points” for a prize: Not the toy army tank of his dreams, but a real-life tank beyond his dreams.

In reality, that’s just Guido’s ruse to distract his son, and possibly himself. Guido figures that, thus cocooned, they’ll stand some chance of surviving camp atrocities.

The film is still, unfairly, accused of spoofing or softening the Holocaust. It does nothing of the sort. On the contrary, it condemns inhumanity. It starts out as a cheery romantic farce, but suddenly it turns into a mournful reflection on hope and its flip side, despair.

Benigni doesn’t care for scenes of sadism, torture, or gore; audiences already have that from other filmmakers. The Holocaust here is a backdrop, not the main event. Benigni’s camera doesn’t show us much of it, but we see enough in the troubled eyes of his beloved trio.

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(L–R) Roberto Benigni as Guido, Nicoletta Braschi as Dora, and Giorgio Cantarini as Giosuè in “Life Is Beautiful.” (Melampo Cinematografica)

Benigni’s eyes are elsewhere: on love and truth. His film argues that love is easy to spot. Find sacrifice, and you’ll find love. Falsehood? It accompanies every display of selfishness, every hatred, every pride. Love? Even when playing hide-and-seek from falsehood, love itself can never be false.

A refugee, even one hiding in plain sight, isn’t deceitful if he’s merely fleeing tyranny or shielding his family or protecting their freedom. And it is love’s truth that, seemingly magically, creates the hope to endure suffering.

Love Is Not Blind or Weak, But Clear-Sighted and Strong

At one point, Dora rushes to the train that’s taking Guido and Giosuè to a camp. She pleads with the commandant. There must be some error. He checks. There is none. Father and son are on the list. She isn’t. Smoke billowing from the train’s chimney feels like a threat, a harbinger of furnaces awaiting them at camp.

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Nicoletta Braschi as Dora (L) in “Life Is Beautiful.” (Melampo Cinematografica)

In spite of sensing, however faintly, that horrific fate ahead, Dora “chooses” to board with them. A stunned commandant complies. But Dora is clear. Their life is hers. If there’s anything to be endured, they’ll endure it together.

Is she blind? Or clear-sighted? Does her utter dependence on giving and receiving love make her weak? Or strong?

To Benigni, it’s the supremacists who are “blind” to humanity around them, denying truth and worshiping falsehood.

As a waiter, Guido entertains restaurant customer Dr. Lessing (Horst Buchholz), whose genial fondness for Guido is a reward for indulging his weakness for riddles.

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Roberto Benigni as Guido in “Life Is Beautiful.” (Melampo Cinematografica)

As a prisoner at camp, however, Guido discovers to his horror that Lessing, as a Nazi captain, fails to “see” his favorite waiter. He sees nothing more than a riddle-solver and, eventually, not even that. A rare moment when the usually smiling Guido is serious, speechless, stunned.

In touching irony, the captain, imprisoned in his own mind, pleads with his Jewish prisoner: “Help me, please, for heaven’s sake, help me!”

Benigni’s cinematic tool is irony. And he wields it to unveil his sense of truth, of love. Showing his nephew around the house, Guido’s Uncle Eliseo says in mock indifference, “That’s the bed. Legend has it Garibaldi slept there. … Nothing is more necessary than the unnecessary.”

That’s Benigni playing on what can be likened to the typical high-society dinner table discussion of the time. For, only minutes later, his camera captures Dora at the table, hearing her elite hosts hotly discussing the “savings” the state would make if “unnecessary” cripples, lunatics, and epileptics were eliminated.

Benigni plays on truth and falsehood, too. The “truthful” but brutal state acts in broad daylight: ransacking homes, arresting innocents, and openly brainwashing schoolchildren in a classroom. The “lying” Guido, however, keeps disguising himself: as a prince, a chauffeur, a trickster with endless surprises for his son, and in a futile attempt to reach Dora, even as a woman prisoner.

Who is lying? Who is truthful?

Love Is Nothing If It Isn’t Shared

One night at camp, Guido, as temp-waiter at the Nazi officers’ quarters, is serving officers and their families. If only for a few hours away from the squalor of the camp, he’s amid fine clothes, exotic food, wine.

And music on a gramophone. He uses that chance to turn on the soul-stirring “Barcarolle” by Jacques Offenbach, which first brought him and Dora together. Guido isn’t playing music. He’s trying to reach Dora in a distant prison-dorm. As Benigni’s camera soars up and across the yard, you feel each melancholic chord uniting them in an invisible bond, unscarred by the brick walls and barbed wires.

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Roberto Benigni as Guido in “Life Is Beautiful.” (Melampo Cinematografica)

Here, it isn’t shared joy that unites them but shared sorrow. Their love doesn’t mind what life throws their way. As long as they can share it, it won’t matter, even if it’s sorrow.

When Moral Darkness Overwhelms

The stoic anguish of those who survived real Nazi camps (Rubino Romeo Salmoni who wrote the book “In the End, I Beat Hitler,” and Benigni’s father, Luigi) influenced Benigni’s screenplay. It appears that renowned therapist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl did, too. Frankl’s landmark book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” (1946), draws on his years in a camp. His psychotherapeutic path affirms that a “purposeful” life becomes its own incentive to endure life’s tragedies.

For Guido, it’s simpler. His life’s highest “purpose” is to love and be loved. Anything less and he wilts.

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(L–R) Giorgio Cantarini as Giosuè, Roberto Benigni as Guido, and Nicoletta Braschi as Dora in “Life Is Beautiful.” (Melampo Cinematografica)

Frankl died the year this film was released. As if in tribute, Guido adamantly celebrates every sliver of sunny light, even in the face of overwhelming moral darkness. In the indescribable desolation of that concentration camp, Guido treasured but two slivers of light: Dora and Giosuè. For him, they were enough.

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Promotional ad for “Life Is Beautiful.” (Melampo Cinematografica)

‘Life Is Beautiful’
Director: Roberto Benigni
Starring: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Release Date: Dec. 20, 1997
Rated: 5 stars out of 5

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on pop culture. He may be reached at Twitter: @RudolphFernandz
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