REVIEW: “Life is Beautiful”

LIFE POSTERWho 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.


REVIEW: “Amour”

One of my most eagerly anticipated films to see has been Michael Haneke’s “Amour”. The 70-year-old Haneke is a director I’ve grown to admire even though I leave some of his films frustrated. He can seem infatuated with suffering and misery and his love for ambiguous endings can be testing. For example, after recently watching his 2005 film “Caché” I found myself growling at the open-ended finale. But soon after I found myself thinking more on the movie and what Haneke was going for. That’s when I really began to appreciate the film. Such is the case with several Michael Haneke pictures.

His latest movie is “Amour”, a French language drama that has blown critics away and garnered 6 Academy Award nominations. Haneke is no stranger to critical acclaim but make no mistake, he deserves every ounce of praise he has received for this stirring and often times devastating masterpiece. Like many of his pictures, it’s not a movie you can say you thoroughly enjoy watching. “Amour” deals with some depressing but very real subject matter and Haneke’s ability to express it all is astounding. He was able to get me so emotionally invested that I cared about every single thing I was seeing on the screen.

But the film would never work without its two phenomenal lead performances. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva play Georges and Anne Laurent, a happily married couple, both in their eighties, living in Paris. We see some beautiful scenes of them together as they enjoy a night out at a concert and share conversations at the breakfast table. I instantly knew that these two people had been in love for a long time. But it’s at that breakfast table where Anne suddenly goes quiet and just stares straight ahead for several minutes. It turns out that she has what appears to be a stroke and after surgery she’s left paralyzed on her right side.


Georges brings Anne back home to take care of her and promises that he’ll never take her back to the hospital or send her to a hospice facility. This doesn’t sit well with their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) who has a few clashes with Georges over the decision. Sadly Anne’s condition worsens and Georges has to face the reality that his wife may not get better. This is difficult but reality-based stuff and the film never pulls any punches in dealing with it. We see the simplest of things become increasingly difficult for Anne and we see Georges right by her side through it all. We watch them go through something that so many others have experienced and that ability to relate is one thing that makes this such a powerful picture.

I hinted at the great performances by the two leads. Well with all due respect to every other female performance of 2012, and that includes Oscar front-runners Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain, no one gave a more stunning and committed performance than Emmanuelle Riva. She took my breath away. She gives this performance everything she has and that’s a key ingredient to making it work. There was never a moment in the film where I didn’t believe in what she was doing. And then there’s Trintignant who has a much different role but an equally essential and compelling one. He offers that same authenticity as Riva and for me watching him handle this material was a huge part of my experience.

I also have to take time to talk about Haneke’s technique. I loved how he opened the movie. We get one brief scene that sets the table for everything to come. In a sense Haneke shows his hand before playing his cards. But the true power of this film is in what follows and the opening scene allows us to put our focus where it should be. There’s also no musical score at all. This frees the movie from any potential emotional manipulation that music can sometimes bring. Haneke brings every ounce of his emotion from the characters. Now personally I would have liked a smart and subtle score but it’s absence does nothing to detract from the film.


You’ll also notice that almost the entire movie takes place inside their Paris apartment. With the exception of the early sequence where they go to a concert, we spend the entire time in the apartment with them. During that time I felt I knew their home as well as they did. I know where their living room is. I know how their kitchen is laid out. I know their foyer, their halls, their bathroom, and their bedroom. This did a couple of things for me. It gave me a sense of place but it also relays the confinement they now experience. Anna’s illness has restricted them to the apartment where they even depend on good neighbors to get their groceries for them. Haneke also uses his familiar technique of setting his camera and then watching things unfold. Often times he’ll extend his shots which force us to take in some of the painful moments while at other times enjoying and appreciating the peaceful ones. I found this to be very effective.

And then you have the ending. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, anyone familiar with a Michael Haneke picture has to be prepared for the ending. Sometimes they’re nice and tidy but other times they can be abrupt and ambiguous. In “Amour” he ends it just right, well almost. There’s an incredibly moving moment that felt like the perfect ending to this film and essentially it is. But then he tacks on an extra minute-long scene. Now this brief final moment does carry some weight in itself and it does nothing to undo the previous scene. But it did have me wondering where it fit in chronologically. For me, he could have trimmed this scene and still have a near perfect ending. But it’s such a minor thing considering how incredible this film is as a whole.

Speaking of perfect, “Amour” is the perfect title for this film. This is a story of true love – a love between a husband and wife that only grew stronger through the many years they experienced together. It’s a love that’s taken for granted today and it’s often times treated so flippantly. But Haneke shows how precious it is and even in the face of this particular heartbreak it’s that love which shines brightest. There is an examination of cruelty and of suffering and there may be a bit of trickery going on. But for me it all came back to the deep love between this couple. I’ve thought a lot about this film since seeing it. I’ve thought about my marriage and growing old with my wife. I’ve thought about that cherished relationship that we share. Then I thought about Anne and Georges. They help us understand and appreciate the loyalty and self-sacrifice that comes with such a beautiful relationship. That my friends is amour.




Review: “A Separation”

“A Separation” is the 2012 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film and the first win for a movie from Iran. Written, produced, and directed by Asghar Fahadi, “A Separation” is a carefully structured and nuanced story that is at times painful and tragic but always mesmerizing. Set in modern-day Iran, the film is a devastating look at divorce through the cultural lens of a very complex country. Fahadi uses an almost methodical approach to storytelling yet his film is brimming with intensity and true human emotions. It touches on a reality of life that transcends any political or cultural barrier while also offering some thought-provoking insight into the religious laws and social structure of that part of the world.

“A Separation” opens with a well conceived scene that sets the stage for larger story. The scene shows Nader and Simin petitioning a judge for a divorce after 14 years of marriage. Simin is spearheading the separation because she wants to leave the country due to its current state of affairs. She is concerned with how it will effect the future of their 11-year-old daughter Termeh. Nader has no desire to leave mainly because he takes care of his father who is in the advance stages of Alzheimer’s. The judge rules their complaints to be petty and not warranting a divorce. With no divorce granted Simin still moves out leaving Nader to take care of his father and Termeh.

It’s here where we begin to see the many layers of Fahadi’s story. He examines a variety of social issues while offering a subtle but clear critique of Iranian culture. Yet nothing here feels forced or contrived. He looks at these things through the eyes of his characters in a true and organic way. Plus we learn more about the characters as they’re faced with things such as elderly care, school pressure, and rigid orthodoxy. But the biggest dissection of the characters comes through an intense court battle between Nader and a caretaker he hired to look after his father. It’s here that we see each character struggle with a variety of difficult choices and moral quandaries. It becomes a true character study that reveals a side of people that we can recognize as wrong while also understanding the root cause of their moral compromises. This is where the story could have evolved into a convoluted and self-indulgent mess. But Fahadi’s razor-sharp screenplay never misses a step and the film moves with a fluid yet painful grace.

While Fahadi takes his characters through various moral gray areas, he never labels one the hero and one the villain. There are no white or blacks hats in this story. In fact, one of the most compelling things about the film is trying to figure out who to sympathize with between Nader and Simin. I was constantly going back and both between them as things unfolded. But that’s just another reflection of the tremendous screenplay. Fahadi engages the audience and encourages them to make their own conclusions about his characters. And while his story does examine social and cultural issues, “A Separation” is a film about a divorce that’s happening right before our eyes. But as I was watching this husband and wife I realized that the heart of this story was young Termeh. Like a tennis ball she is bounced back and forth in the background of the film until everything reaches it’s breaking point. She’s simply heart-breaking.

Another reason the movie works so well are the performances. Everyone across the board is fantastic and no one buckles under the weighty material. The performances flow perfectly together with such ease. They nicely handle a script that can sometimes pack more intensity in an on-screen conversation than most action films. I remember several scenes that had me on the edge of my seat just by its searing dialogue. But while the story is very well written, there is one problem I had. There’s a pivotal moment close to the end of the film where key information is revealed in what feels like the most convenient way imaginable. It’s the only time in the entire film where something didn’t feel authentic.

“A Separation” is a fantastic movie that does more to prove the broad range of global talent in filmmaking. It’s a fascinating look at the cultural inner-workings of a complex society yet the main thrust of the story goes well beyond that. It examines the horrible effects of divorce by looking at it through a very clear lens. Fahadi doesn’t try to take sides even if it appears so at first. Instead he exposes what drives some people to end their marriage. It’s an honest and often times crushing picture but one that is incredibly well crafted. It does have a minor hiccup or two but these minor flaws do nothing to spoil what a fine accomplishment this is. “A Separation” should cause the serious viewer to think and to ask ourselves questions. For me, that’s just a reflection on how good this movie is.