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.



I’ve never been a big Woody Allen fan. But my appreciation for his filmmaking grew with last year’s amazing “Midnight in Paris”, a fantastic film that was wonderfully written, genuinely funny, and purely magical. Allen’s European tour continue’s with “To Rome With Love” yet another romantic comedy taking place in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. “To Rome With Love” is a collage of individual stories about a number of different people and their relationships, their predicaments, and their quirks. It starts by capturing some of that same magic that made “Midnight in Paris” such a strong film but the second half of the movie runs off the rails and the result is an uneven and ultimately disappointing result.

The different unconnected stories battle for screen time and all start on the right track. In one, Haley (Allison Pill), an American tourist visiting Rome meets, falls in love with, and is soon engaged to a local hunk named Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). After her parents fly over to meet his parents, her father (Woody Allen), who compares his recent retirement to a premature death, thinks his career is rejuvenated after discovering Michelangelo’s shower singing father (Fabio Armiliato). In another story, Roberto Benigni plays a mundane and predictable husband and father who suddenly becomes the object of immense fame and notoriety over nothing more than what type of underwear he wears and how he likes his toast.

In yet another story Alec Baldwin plays John, a middle-aged architect back in Rome visiting the neighborhood where he once lived as a young man. He bumps into Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a young architect living in Rome with his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig). Their relationship is strained when her best friend Monica (Ellen Paige) flies in to visit from the states. John follows Jack around everywhere sounding off warnings about his budding relationship with the flakey Monica. And then there are the reserved small-town newlyweds (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) who arrive in Rome where the husband hopes to get a job from his wealthy family. Through several off-the-wall events, the two are separated in the city and each find their love for the other challenged by the people they meet including a  prostitute played by Penelope Cruz. This was easily the weakest story of the four.

These four storylines stay within their own individual walls and they never intersect with each other. As I mentioned they each start strong and Allen packs a lot of good laughs particularly the first half of the movie. At first I really thought Allen was doing something clever and crafty with the four stories. The film addresses an interesting array of issues and the characters are actually quite intriguing up to a point. But things begin to slowly turn sour and not only does Allen’s story fly wildly out of control but many of his characters become pretty pathetic individuals who depict the movie’s warped and cynical view of love, devotion, and relationships. Several of the characters are faced with sexual temptations and ultimately fall prey to them, some with almost no meaningful struggle of conscience. Other storylines become preposterous which is ok if you’re going somewhere with it. And while I definitely laughed at some of the over-the-top gags, keeping my loosely attached interest intact  hinged on the idea that Woody was doing more with these self-indulgent characters and outlandish situations than what we were seeing. As it turns out he really wasn’t.

As I’m sure you noticed, Allen still has a knack for attaching great talent to his productions. There’s not a bad performance in the entire film and the actors almost pull it off even when the material goes south. Woody Allen himself delivers some of the film’s biggest laughs while portraying the same neurotic and pessimistic character as in his other roles. Speaking of neurotic, but on a much smaller scale, I also really enjoyed Eisenberg’s performance as well. But the biggest star of the film may be the city of Rome itself. Allen truly has an affection for Rome and he goes to great lengths to show its history, beauty, and romantic charm. While Rome certainly doesn’t take on main character status as Paris did in “Midnight in Paris”, it’s still a key ingredient in giving the movie the romantic vibe its shooting for. In fact, for me the movie loses most of its sense of romance with the exception of the charming city that’s present in almost every scene. Even when I was growing detached from the stories, Allen’s camera would capture a location in Paris that sucked me back in.

“To Rome With Love” is truly a story of two halves. The first half of the movie was an absolute blast even though some of the four stories were more interesting than others. But in the second half of the movie I sat in the theater noticing that I hadn’t laughed in some time. As I slowly lost interest in the characters I began noticing that Allen really wasn’t going anywhere with the film. There’s no clever or memorable twist. It spits and sputters to its finale and by the end I was asking myself how Allen could have made two halves so totally different. I also wasn’t all that interested in Allen’s seemingly loose ideas of love, fidelity, and trustworthiness and in this case it hollowed out his characters with the exception of those in Haley and Michelangelo’s story. For some, the spectacular location and the number of funny moments will be enough to carry the picture. But for me it was terribly uneven and it ends up tearing down everything it itself creates. In fact, “To Rome With Love” feels like a film that needed another year of writing and production. The rushed results were nothing short of disappointing.