Director: Roberto Benigni
Writers: Roberto Benigni and Vincenzo Cerami
Starring: Roberto Benigni and Nicoletta Braschi
La vita è bella, or Life is Beautiful, is directed, co-written by, and starring Roberto Benigni. The story was inspired by Rubino Romeo Salmonì’s book In the End, I Beat Hitler, as well as Benigni’s own father. It’s a black comedy that takes a unique approach to the Holocaust, by masking it underneath an imaginary game. Benigni’s father spent two years in a Nazi labour camp and when he would tell his children about his experiences, he would hide the darkness with humour, which is mirrored in the telling of the film. While the subject matter is incredibly bleak, there is still a sense of humour to it that makes it feel that much more tragic.
Benigni stars as Guido, a young man who moves to the city Arezzo, in order to open a bookshop. He has a few chance encounters with Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), and the couple fall in love throughout these meetings. Five years later, they’re married and have a child while the country is occupied by Nazis. Guido, Dora, and their son, Joshua, are taken to a concentration camp. Guido will do anything to stop Joshua from realising what’s going on and creates a fantasy where the camp is a game, with a winner and prize, and they’re out to win.
This is a film in two halves, split by a time jump. The story starts in 1939, with Guido trying to win over his princess, Dora. Guido is a sweet, kind hearted man who will stop at nothing to get a laugh from Dora. The first half is a genuinely funny and and silly romantic comedy. Then the story jumps forward five years and the war is taking hold of Italy. The difference between the two halves is palpable, but the light-hearted tone and black comedy is kept throughout, with some bittersweet moments right until up until the end. The silly antics of Guido does becomes less funny as the story goes on, and instead it’s heart-breaking to watch as he tries to shield his son from what they’re going through.
That’s not to say there’s not hints that the horrors are coming in the first half, with discussions about the savings made if all the disabled people were killed, the anti-Semitic insults that the characters endure, and where Guido impersonates a school visitor who is there to teach about the ‘superior’ aryan race. You can sense the growing unease even before the time skip, when everything really manifests. With how silly everything seems at the beginning; it really makes the horrors hit that much harder when it starts, and it leaves an impression when the credits start to roll.
Life is Beautiful is one of those films that will stay with you long after the credits roll. It’s a strong reminder about one of the worst tragedies of recent history, while at the same time a testament to human strength and family. The way the Holocaust is portrayed, with so much left unsaid, is poignant and genuinely scary. For the most part it does feel like you’re experiencing it through the eyes of a child, as Joshua goes along with the game out of fear of missing out on the prize, but at the same time suspects his father isn’t being completely truthful about everything.
Roberto Benigni masterfully creates and weaves the story together, balancing perfectly the drama and comedy to make something that’s both hard hitting and fun to watch. He’s also incredibly good as Guido, making him an utterly charming and endearing character. At first he’s a lovable buffoon, out to win the heart of his precious Dora, and later he’s a strong willed father and Benigni is great at both.
This isn’t a story about the horrors of the Holocaust, but instead it’s about the lengths a father would go to protect his son from the world around him. It’s a heart-breaking tale about family and survival. What starts off as a light-hearted and silly rom-com turns into a tragic and powerful film. It’s an emotional journey from start to finish and one that won’t leave a dry eye in the house.
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