Winning Academy Awards in 1998 for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Actor, and Best Score, "Life Is Beautiful" is, simply, beautiful. However, it still took the urging of one of my students, Alex Carter, to get me to watch it. The way I figured it, if a high school freshman loved it, it must have something going for it. Then, when a half dozen more students said it would make me cry, I was hooked. Besides, it was recently voted the best foreign film of all time in a poll of viewers. With those kind of credentials, how could I lose?
Co-written, directed by, and starring Roberto Benigni ("Johnny Stecchino," "The Monster," "Son of the Pink Panther"), "Life Is Beautiful" takes us into the Chaplinesque world of laughter and tears, a story told in two separate parts. The first half is light and whimsical. Its tone is established at the outset when we see a runaway car careening down a mountain road and rolling on through a village. It's a scene out of silent comedy. The car's occupants are a gentle, comical Jewish waiter named Guido (Benigni) and his cousin, arriving in town for new employment. The time is 1939, and because Italy has joined Germany as an Axis power, the Nazis have not yet begun arresting Italian Jews.
This first part recounts Guido's romance and courtship of Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), a beautiful Italian school teacher already engaged to one of the town's leading citizens. Guido is basically a jester at heart, a man who uses his disarming wit and zany brashness to carry him through the day. To win his love, he fakes the part of Dora's fiancee; impersonates an official visitor to Dora's school who is speaking on racial superiority (of which he makes proper mockery); and, finally, carries her away on horseback during a formal dinner party.
But it is the movie's second half that sparks controversy. After Guido and Dora's marriage, a deft edit takes us forward five years, close to the end of the War. The couple now have a child, Joshua (Georgio Cantarini), and are living blissfully until the Nazis seize Guido and the child and take them away to a concentration camp. Dora insists upon going, too, and then the plot gets sticky. What are we to expect of concentration-camp humor? Benigni always keeps the action teetering between serious drama and "Hogan's Heroes"-type farce, yet he never actually steps over the bounds into the latter category.
To protect the child from the realities of the death camp, Guido pretends to his son that it is all a game. Joshua must hide from the Germans to earn points that will eventually win him a tank! It is quite an accomplished balancing act that Benigni performs, but one that some viewers will not agree is kept within the limitations of proper respect for the situation. The very act of clowning in a concentration camp may appear to be a demeaning of the Holocaust. Of course, it is not meant to be so in any way. Guido must fight to safeguard his son, and he must do so with the only weapons he has at his disposal, his aforementioned wit and brashness.
I must confess I felt a few uneasy moments in the second half, myself, wondering how Benigni was going to avoid trivializing the horrific conditions of a Nazi prison. He gets away with it, though, in two ways: First, he makes us fully aware of the killings going on within the camp walls, and he never makes a joke at their expense.
Second, and more important, he never asks us to view the story too literally, which would, indeed, be a cheapening of the Holocaust. The story is meant to be taken figuratively, as a fable, its moral one of hope and survival, much as we see in films like "Cool Hand Luke" and "The Shawshank Redemption." Such a symbolic interpretation may come as small comfort to survivors of Nazi atrocities, but it is plainly Benigni's intention.
The film is silly, to be sure, implausible, sometimes slapstick, often sophomoric; but it is never disrespectful. This is made manifestly clear in the film's closing voice-over, as compelling a statement as any in the annals of filmdom.
Miramax Films and Buena Vista Distributing offer the film in a 1.72:1 ratio widescreen presentation. By and large, the picture quality is excellent, with only occasional moments of softness or minor color bleed-through to make us aware we are not watching high-definition TV.
Likewise, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio makes a good accounting of itself, using the front stereo speakers judiciously and the rear speakers to fill in ambient noise most realistically. The lovely and award-winning musical soundtrack benefits greatly from the natural sonics.
Breaking from their usual custom of providing little besides the film, BV offer a few bonus items, the main one a twenty-three minute featurette titled "Making Life Is Beautiful." Italian and English are provided as spoken languages, so if reading subtitles in a foreign film annoys you, there is always the English dub as an alternative. Be aware, though, that the dubbing does not always match the movement of the actors' mouths nor does it appear to be coming from the same acoustic setting as that on the screen. The dubbed English may be more disconcerting than trying to read the subtitles, so I advise the latter. Finally, there are twenty-seven scene selections, a whole series of short television spots, and a theatrical trailer.
Now, about that vote for "best foreign language film of all time" that I mentioned earlier: It was conducted by a chain of movie houses in the U.S. that screens foreign films, and the poll included over 5,000 participants. So far, so good. But I would add the caution that people who vote in movie polls commonly cast their ballots for the most recent films they've seen. I'm sure it was no coincidence that the top three vote-getters were "Life Is Beautiful," "Cinema Paradiso," and "Il Postino," all relatively recent releases. Films like "La Dolce Vita," "8 1/2," "Grand Illusion," "Rules of the Game," "Rashomon," "The Seven Samurai," "The Seventh Seal," and "The Virgin Spring" scored much farther down the list. So, I would take such polls with a grain of salt.
Better to think of "Life Is Beautiful" without hype or hyperbole. It is a sweet and moving experience, strongly recommendable for its music, too, and worthy of ranking with the better films of the year. Oh, and about those students of mine: They were right.