Who can forget Roberto Benigni’s exuberance upon winning Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actor Oscars for “Life is Beautiful”. His infectious enthusiasm and charm resembled that of the character he played in his wonderful 1997 Italian drama. Benigni’s Best Actor was notable due to the Academy’s usual reluctance to nominate or award performers from foreign films. His win is also considered an upset as he beat frontrunners Nick Nolte and Tom Hanks. Perhaps it was an upset, but to call Benigni’s win undeserving would be untrue. It’s a brilliant performance that serves as the centerpiece for this moving story.
“Life is Beautiful” is essentially broken down into two chapters. The first half starts in 1939 Italy and tells the story of a clownish, good-natured Jewish-Italian fellow named Guido (Benigni) who falls for a lovely upper-class teacher named Dora (played by Benigni’s real life wife Nicoletta Braschi). Guido’s happy and playful demeanor wins over many of the people he encounters and eventually Dora. We watch as he woos her through spontaneous meetings which don’t always sit well with the upper-crust establishment. The two fall in love and soon marry and have a son named Joshua.
The second chapter of the story takes a darker turn. Throughout the first half of the film we get hints to how Europe is changing as World War 2 approaches and anti-Jewish sentiment surfaces. But Guido wants to shield young Joshua from these things and he does it the only way he knows how. He puts on performances and depicts things in comical ways. His goal is to keep his son focused in the goodness and beauty of life. That becomes harder when Guido, Dora, and Joshua are rounded up and taken to a Nazi concentration camp. But even in those brutal circumstances and regardless of the death and misery surrounding them, Guido is determined to safeguard his son through his blithe fictional creations.
“Life is Beautiful” is really a fable. It’s not intended to be a by-the-books depiction of Nazi atrocities in the concentration camps. But some people have criticized Benigni for his incorporation of humor into such a serious subject. I find that to be an unfair objection. At no point does this film make light of the horrors. At no point does Benigni make a joke of the Holocaust or anything related to it. The humor ties in perfectly to the character. Guido isn’t a soldier or a fighter. He uses the only gift he has solely for the purpose of comforting and saving his family. There are several really big laughs but they never do disservice to the characters and they never go outside the bounds of taste and respect.
It’s obvious that the movie could do more to show the brutality and horror of the concentration camps. But not every movie on the Holocaust has to do that especially when they are telling a specific story that doesn’t require it. Benigni does a fabulous job of building his characters and telling his story while planting the reality of their situations in our subconscious. I knew the dangers and I knew the stakes were high. But yet in the midst of that this gentle and uplifting story is told with tenderness and care. And at the film’s center is Benigni’s spirited performance. He is vivacious, loquacious, and almost annoyingly positive especially to cynics like me. But there is nothing false about his performance, just a deep and genuine portrayal of a loving father.
I can see where some people may have problems with “Life is Beautiful”. Its uniqueness and unfettered optimism may be off-putting for those expecting an entirely different type of film. I really enjoyed its heart and I found myself drawn to these authentic characters and the happiness and sorrow they encountered. “Life is Beautiful” may not have the pop to make it stand out as a classic, but it is still a wonderful look at love, life, and the human spirit.