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LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL
Director: Roberto Benigni
Genre: Comedy / Drama
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for holocaust-related thematic elements.
Video Release: 08 November 1999
Tagline: Unforgettable fable proves love, family & imagination conquer all.
This film appears actually as a movie with two parts. The first half deals with the 1939 courtship of an Italian-Jewish waiter, Guido (Roberto Benigni) and a Tuscan schoolteacher, Dora (Nicoletta Braschi) whom he falls in love with at first sight (or first fall). The events that follow are a fairy-tale courtship of humorous antics and witty charm in which they become husband and wife and have a son (Giorgio Cantarini). The second part of the tale fast forwards several years later, in which Guido and family are sent off to a concentration camp and how Guido must convince his son, Giosué, that the trip and camp are all part of an elaborate game in honor of his birthday. If Giosué is good and follows all the "rules" they will win a real live tank.
Many critics attacked Life Is Beautiful for portraying a concentration camp as an unrestricted playground where children play hide-n-seek and Nazi soldiers are comedy sidekicks. But the real story of this film is not about betraying the experience of millions of Jews. It is about the great lengths a father will go to protect his family from the horrors of the Nazi war machine.
Benigni’s flair as both director and actor create at atmosphere where the audience forgets the horrifying conditions that surround them and can only root for Giosué to win his fabled tank. During their incarceration, Guido lets Dora know that they are both alive by broadcasting over a loudspeaker: "Bonjourno principessa!" ("Good morning princess!") and playing a familiar record through a window as he waiters an occasion for some German visitors. While such antics make the film appear more like an episode of Hogan’s Heroes than from Schindler’s List, it is those very antics which keep you an arm’s length from the Holocaust barbarities.
Despite the sugarcoated setting, the atrocities are not completely wiped out. There are memorably disturbing moments in the film -- the arrival at the camp as the elderly are removed from the others, the image of Guido’s uncle undressing as they prepare for the "showers," and a dream-like scene where Guido and son come across a enormous funeral pyre of human bones. An even deeper scene involves the re-appearance of a German doctor (now the camp physician) whom Guido had befriended in his other life. Dr. Lessing (Horst Bucholz) appears as a possible savior for Guido and family but his destructive obsession of riddles only mirrors the obsessive manner of the Germans weeding out inferior races.
Life Is Beautiful was the recipient of numerous awards: Cannes Grand Jury Prize, eight Italian Oscars, the Best Jewish Experience Award at the Jerusalem International Film Fest, as well as, Academy Awards for Best Actor (Begnini), Best Foreign Film and Best Dramatic Score. The film also received nominations for Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Picture, and Best Original Screenplay. The first time I had heard of this movie was upon its nomination and the first glimpse of its characters was Begnini’s goofy but lovable demeanor at the Oscar presentations. Normally, because of subtitles or dubbing, I find foreign films hard to enjoy as there are certain losses in translation. Not so with Life Is Beautiful.
A fairy tale script which invokes themes from It’s A Wonderful Life, this film manages to be chilling, tense, yet also hilarious. Its characters are believable -- even if elements of the film are not. If one can get beyond that aspect, this film delivers a powerful message that despite everything -- life is truly beautiful.
How would I rate this? I give it a 4, perhaps a 4-plus. In an industry plagued by shallow characters and weak storylines, this movie will grab you from the get-go (a very funny scene) to the final image. Bring your Kleenex.
© Terrence J. Brady
The ratings for "Pan & Scan" are broken down into a simple 1-5 scale as follows: 5 = "Forget renting it - BUY IT!"; 4 = "Definite Must Rent"; 3 = "Coin Toss" (Rent it OR wait for cable); 2 = "Wait For Cable"; 1 = "Ignore It!" (Even when it's on network TV).