Life Is Beautiful is essentially two films in one. There are typically comedies with dramatic elements or dramas with comedic elements, but rarely are the two combined so liberally. Roberto Benigni directed and wrote this Best Foreign Language Film of 1997 and excitedly received Best Actor for his alternately silly and heartrending performance as devoted father Guido Orefice. Life Is Beautiful certainly deserves its place as the only foreign-language film in my top 100.
The film starts out as a comedic romp, with much similarity to Miyazaki’s The Castle of Cagliostro, in which a pair of buddies are roaming the countryside (and must fix a flat tire) until the charming rogue of the duo pursues a “princess” who is engaged to a rich man against her will. Guido’s fast-paced, improvisational humor reminded me of Robin Williams, and his shenanigans are so hilarious that his stalker tendencies toward Dora (his real-life wife Nicoletta Braschi) hardly register in anyone’s mind. Though the first half is mostly carefree, there are intermittent clues that, though Guido’s world is all smiles and romance, the world at large is changing for the worse.
By the time Guido’s son (adorable Giorgio Cantarini) enters the picture, national policies and public sentiment have been so subverted by anti-semitism that Guido cannot simply ignore it. Yet politics are hardly even mentioned; instead, Guido shields his four-year-old son from racism and the horrors of the concentration camp with an elaborate hoax that expertly tows the line between funny for Joshua’s sake and distressingly somber for the situation’s. Guido obviously knows his son well, employing reverse psychology and every prudent trick he knows to keep him safe and unanxious. He’s probably the most admirable, selfless cinematic father I’ve ever seen, rivalled by Marlin from Finding Nemo and Chris Gardner from The Pursuit of Happyness.
The film was controversial at the time for its depiction of lightheartedness alongside the Holocaust. I can merely invoke the wisdom of “If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry”; Life Is Beautiful manages both. The horrors and grief of the Holocaust are still thoroughly felt, though not explicitly shown like in Schindler’s List, and it’s clear that Guido’s every upbeat action is for the sake of his son. Without his son and wife to live for, he might very well have succumbed to despondency; it was for his family’s sake that he smiled and laughed through the pain.Best line: (Guido’s uncle, in an offhand remark that is true on many levels) “Nothing is more necessary than the unnecessary.” VC’s best line: (fellow prisoner Bartolomeo) “They are looking for someone who speaks German to translate their instructions.” (Guido) “Me! I’ll do it, I’ll translate!” (Bartolomeo) “Do you speak German?” (Guido) “No.” [introducing the film’s funniest scene] Rank: 56 out of 60
© 2014 S. G. Liput
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