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.
Great review and totally agreed.
I will even say I think showing more of the horror of the Holocaust would have weakened this flick. After all, it was just three years on the heels of Schindler’s List. If it had been more horrific, it likely would have felt derivative.
Great, great point! I’m totally with you. This movie had a focus and I think it would lose some of that if it went into the horrors of it.
What about Benigni’s acceptance speeches at the Oscars? Did you ever get to see them. Pure uncontrollable enthusiasm. Kinda goofy but I loved it!
I did, live actually. Before I saw the movie in the question. Live I hated the speeches, hated them so much I vowed to not see the film. Then, I realized I was being stupid (and more than a little ethnocentric), so I broke my promise.
After seeing the movie, I gained respect for the acceptance speeches. This film is clearly a labor of love and a very personal project for Benigni. You can see and feel that in every moment of the movie, so it makes sense he’d be so thrilled that the world over told him, “Good job.”
Again, I’m right there with you. I saw it live also and thought he was just goofy. But after seeing the film and understanding the genuineness of his passion, his exuberance makes sense.
Probably one of the greatest foreign language films ever made, IMO. Possibly second only to Cinema Paradiso, or possibly Amelie… I remember having a movie night at my place when this came to DVD, and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house at the end. Just a lovely, lovely film.
Wow that’s high praise! But I love that you love it too. I can’t believe I waited so long to see it. It sounds like you caught up with it around the time it first came out. I inexcusably did not.
I think Benigni was a huge star in Italy already. This definitely earned him attention over hear. As someone who loves the film, what is your response to the criticisms he received that I mentioned?
I always show this film at school in my Holocaust Studies class. It’s rare to find a funny Holocaust film; his devotion to his family and his ability to think on his feet in order to protect his son is unique and wonderful. I didn’t have a problem at all with his win. His kind of pun and slap-stick humor was nostalgic and fit the period film perfectly. Great review, Keith 🙂
Thanks Cindy! As I mentioned elsewhere, I can’t believe it took me this long to see it especially considering my interest in the subject. And I just find the criticism to be so off-base. It’s not mocking or making light of the circumstances. It’s a father desperately trying to shield and save his son.
Have any of your students objected to the humor?
Not one I’m familiar with Keith but sounds excellent! Colour me interested.
Definitely check it out. Before you watch the movie you should go to YouTube and check out Roberto Benigni’s two Oscar acceptance speeches. They are priceless.
Oh by the way, I sent you a Twitter direct message. Check it out when you get a chance.
I like Beningni’s speech and I like the film. Though I think I like the first better. But I’m glad this film is like it is, not darker. It has a huge heart.
Thanks so much for the comments. I’m with you. It has a huge heart and I think that’s very beneficial to the story. I am fascinated behind the criticisms it has received regarding the humor. Did you have any issues with it personally?
I don’t remember having. It’s been a while since I saw it but I think I laughed through the tears, if I remember correctly. Besides, Schindler’s List heaviness is not necessarily a good thing. I still don’t want to watch it again even though it was thrilling experience.
Great point. Schindler’s List is a phenomenal film but its a very difficult watch. There is definitely a place for movies like this that don’t dwell too closely on the horrors.
Oh, no issues with me or my students. My high school students are pretty desensitized. My issues have to do with getting them to appreciate the humor. Their used to crude and rude and this type of humor is understanding the puns and slapstick. And that crazy accent. No, they see through to the beauty of a father who loves his wife and son. It’s refreshing after watching the realistic Holocaust films like Schindler’s List. Ugh! So depressing. OR Boy in the Striped PJs. I ball like a baby. Can’t wait to incorporate The Book Thief next year.
That’s great to hear. I think this movie has its place and the criticisms (in my opinion) are misplaced. I’m really glad to hear the students appreciated. And the hurdle you mentioned is really interesting. I never thought of them struggling with the humor’s style.
I don’t really have issues with the optimism of Life is Beautiful. However, I cringe when I think of Benigni’s performance. He’s so mawkish, over the top, and cartoonish that I found him terrible in this. I didn’t find the humor funny either, and as Catch-22 shows I have no problem with humor in my WWII movies. I came to this film way late, so it seems like I’m piling on the backlash, but no matter when I had seen Life is Beautiful it’s a film that I doubt would have worked for me.
Those are fair criticisms mainly because this movie uses concentrated humor. It’s all focused on Benigni and if he doesn’t work for you more than likely the movie will not either. I bought into him mainly because very early on we see him as a clown. That is just who this character is and I thought his performance fit that well. But again, it is a very big performance and if it didn’t work for you I can definitely see why.
Genuinely one of the most moving films I have ever seen. I think it shows how the holocaust affected an actual individual family and that’s what makes it really powerful. As soon as you start to look at the “big numbers” it dehumanises what happened.
Very well said. I think you hit on something very important. This is an individual’s story (well, he and his family) so it makes sense that we see a more focused and human side of it. It doesn’t sound like the incorporation of humor bothered you either. I actually thought it gave it a real sense of genuineness.
Can’t believe I was so late getting to this movie. Shame on me, I was really missing out.
I have no problem with the humour. I think for a lot of people humour is a survival mechanism, myself included. I also think it depicts a father who would do anything to protect his child and that in itself is really the essence of what it means to be a parent… or so I imagine because I haven’t been fortunate enough to be one yet.
You’re exactly right. As a father I would do anything in my power to protect my kids. Guido wasn’t a soldier or a physical presence. He used the only thing that he had and that was his imagination and humor. And I am like you, it really worked for me.
Great review, bro. It’s been years since I’ve seen this but remember really loving it. It’s due a rewatch methinks!
Thanks man. I have no idea why I had not watched this before last weekend. It’s an excellent bit of Italian cinema and a really fun performance from Benigni. He really takes some tricky material and does wonders with it. Hats off to him.
It is understandable that there are a lot of mixed opinions on “Life Is Beautiful”, but I saw it during its original release and thought it was very strong. Rewatching it a couple a years ago, for the first time as a parent, it is crushing.
That’s really interesting. I can see where parenthood would change the perspective a bit. I’m a dad too and I can perfectly sympathize with what Guido is doing.
I guess my objections with the criticisms are based on Guido’s character. He has no physical presence or toughness. He is using the only attribute he has to spare his son and save his life. There is no irreverence of any kind.
You’re spot on!
It’s been ages since i saw this but I remember being so moved by it. It’s amazing how Benigni made this harrowing story humorous but without losing its emotional power. You laugh and cry watching this film, heart-wrenching yet funny up until the last frame. I always remember his hysterical acceptance speech “… my body is in tumult” and “… I want to make love to everybody!” Ahahahaha
LOL!!!! And didn’t he say something about “laying down on Jupiter”? I loved it too.
I can’t believe it took me this long to see this movie. Especially considering how much I appreciate films on this subject.
OH! Don’t forget to email me that “thing”. I’m really hoping this is going to be a cool new thing. 🙂
Nice review Keith. Love this film. I’ve watched it a few times and it always brings a lump to my throat. I always understood the criticisms put forward by its detractors, but I’m afraid it just got me this one. Very moving.
Thanks man! I really have a hard time with the criticisms mainly because the movie does nothing to mock or take lightly the horrors of the Holocaust. All of the humor flows from this one man and it is completely consistent with his character. If it were making light of the Holocaust I would definitely have an issue with it.
That’s a great point. I’d also say the treatment of the Jewish characters before they go to the camp, the journey there and the work / living conditions is all as grim as it needs to be anyway.
I will say that I can see where Guido may come across as annoying to some people. His unflinching positivity is always present and that may turn off some folks.
Great review. The way the film projects hope and optimism in such a horrifying context as the oppression of Jews is masterful. It is not an easy thing to do or present well.
Very, very well said. It’s definitely tricky and I think Benigni is mindful of the seriousness of the material. That’s why I think he pulls it off.
It is that “exuberance” you mention that always makes me smile when I think of Life is Beautiful. And the film achieves the same feeling… there’s tragedy and sadness in this story but the point Benigni tries to make is all about seeing some light in all that darkness.
Very well said. It’s very respectful of the setting which is why I don’t agree with some of the criticism it received. I think it’s a sweet and earnest film that genuinely has a great message.