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Life is Beautiful (1998) – Movie Review

Life is Beautiful

Directed by Roberto Benigni
Written by Roberto Benigni & Vincenzo Cerami
Starring Robert Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini, Sergio Bini Bustrio, Giustino Durano

My Advice: Don’t Miss It.

Wow. There’s your synopsis right there. Benigni, who I last saw in the truly fetid Son of the Pink Panther, delivers a masterpiece that is a very funny out-and-out comedy, but is also one of the most human and tragic films of the year. He plays Guido, essentially a clown with a vivid imagination, making his way through Italy in 1939. He presents himself as a prince one day by the side of the road, and he’s looking for his princess. She falls into his arms (literally) in the form of Dora (Braschi, Benigni’s real-life wife), a schoolteacher who he decides he must have for his bride. And well, since you already know from articles and trailers that there’s a kid involved, he gets the girl and ergo gets the son, Joshua (Cantarini). Time passes and it’s 1944. All is well until the Italian fascists round up all the Jews, including Guido’s family, and ship them to a concentration camp. Trying to protect his son from the horrors they are undergoing, Guido creates a fiction for them to live inside: they’re playing a game, a contest, and they must play it to the hilt in order to win the first prize: a real, live army tank.

The brilliance of this piece is that even as Guido is making jokes, falling down, and breaking into the camp’s P.A.–all to keep his son’s and wife’s spirits up–the audience knows the truth and also the strain it must be taking Guido to keep his wits enough to create this fantasy. At one point, Joshua is told by the other children that they’re all going to be made into soap or buttons and their remains burned in the camp’s ovens. Guido admonishes his son for believing the other children’s trickery, after all, they just want to win the tank which is rightfully Joshua’s. He makes light of the reality because the reality is almost too much for him to bear, much less a young boy–and you can see it behind his smile. And here’s where it gets major points: at no point is the horror of the Holocaust itself cheapened because of the humor, the sense of horror is actually intensified. Many times during the film I was struck by the need to laugh and cry simultaneously, and that odd combination of exhiliration, exhaustion and sadness lingered with me long after I finished watching it. I haven’t felt this kind of emotional impact since seeing Falsettos on Broadway many moons ago.

I give this film my highest recommendation, and I hope the people at the Academy at least see fit to honor it with nominations, if not many statuettes. An incredible piece of art, and Benigni, we’ll just pretend that Blake Edwards fiasco never happened, eh?

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