This is the second time I’ve tried to write a review for Life Is Beautiful. The first time, I felt I didn’t do justice to the film. A film I first watched way-back in the late nineties. I remember distinctly my eldest brother bringing the film back from the video shop and my complete lack of enthusiasm. I knew nothing about the film, had never heard of it, and the only subtitled, foreign films I was watching were from Hong Kong and featured copious amounts of martial arts!
Reluctantly, I sat and watched it and, I’m happy to say, I absolutely loved it. It is a movie that has stayed with me for years and years and it was only in the last 18 months or so that I purchased the DVD as I struggled to remember the name of it.
Life Is Beautiful is written by, directed and stars Italian actor Roberto Benigni (Pinocchio, The Monster) and his real-life wife Nicoletta Braschi (Pinocchio, The Tiger and the Snow). Benigni plays Guido (or Prince Guido as he sometimes refers to himself) whilst Braschi plays Dora (or the Princess as she’s commonly known, to Guido).
Guido arrives in a small Italian village, shortly before the Nazis move in, set on opening a book shop. He meets Dora, who literally falls from the sky, pinches her from her fiancée and together they have a son, Joshua, played by Giorgio Cantarini (Gladiator, The Early Bird Catches The Worm). Jewish hatred begins to rise in the area and the war gets closer before eventually catching up with Guido, Joshua and Guido’s uncle. The three of them are carted off to board a train bound for a concentration camp.
Dora, realising what has happened, races to the station and tries to get the Nazi’s to take her husband and son off the train. Of course, they refuse and so, in a powerful move, Dora requests that she be allowed to join them. The second part of the film takes place in the concentration camp with Guido and Joshua separated from Dora. Guido refuses to tell Joshua what is happening and instead makes the whole thing into a game where first prize is a real-life tank.
I’m sure we’ve all seen moving films, ones that have brought us to tears or close to. Ones that have stayed with us, really hit hard. I can honestly say, I’ve never seen a film that moves me and yet has me laughing in hysterics at the same time. With Life Is Beautiful, Robert Benigni has created just that film.
The humour is a little slapstick and silly at times but Benigni is a master in his craft and makes it work. The writing is superb with little things being setup throughout the first half. When the payoffs arrive, they are truly glorious, they make you laugh and some make you sad. Guido’s devotion to keeping his son happy and entertained and, most importantly, away from the Nazi’s is such a moving, poignant statement all by itself. But the other items that Benigni throws in just add to it all so well.
Here we have a protagonist who is full of life, taking every chance he can, happy with his lot and always, always with a smile on his face. Even when thrown into the most shocking adversity, the worst atrocity man has ever known and done, Guido goes at it head on with a large smile. He goes to hell and back to keep his son happy and his wife safe. And then there’s the ending. If it doesn’t move you, you’ve a heart of stone.
If you don’t watch foreign films, if you don’t watch films with subtitles, you are missing out on something that, in its execution, I don’t think I’ve seen before or since. To create something that can make you laugh so heartedly, that can make you happy, believe in love and romance and the good in the world. And yet. And yet be about the worst time in man’s history; a time of genocide and disregard for life on an unprecedented scale. To do all that, is stunning, you may even say; Life, truly is, beautiful.
12th February 1999
THE QUICK SELL
Life Is Beautiful is written by, directed and stars Italian actor Roberto Benigni and his real-life wife Nicoletta Braschi