In 1997, Roberto Benigni took the entire film world by surprise by winning three Oscars (and numerous other awards) with his film Life is Beautiful (original title: La vita è bella). I saw it at the time and I have recently watched it again over twenty years later. I didn’t remember a single thing of it and I enjoyed the experience a lot, more than I expected before pressing Play on my DVD player’s remote control.
Here’s the plot. The film is divided into two parts: the first is set in 1930s’ Fascist Italy, in Arezzo, and shows Guido (Roberto Benigni) falling in love with Dora (Nicoletta Braschi). The second part, a few years later, takes place in an unspecified Nazi concentration camp where Guido and his son Giosuè (Giorgio Cantarini) are interned as Jews, and where Dora decides to be interned as well in order to accompany them. Guido has to invent all sorts of things to help his son survive and at the same time spare him the horrors of the camp.
I don’t know if it’s the masterpiece that everyone claimed it was when it came out, but the film worked great for me. The first part is the most markedly comical one, with Benigni superstar making fun of the stiff Italian fascist characters.
The screenplay (written by Benigni himself together with Vincenzo Cerami) is finely chiseled. Every dialogue is perfectly embedded in a simple which is never boring. Every joke has a purpose, whether to close a gag shortly afterwards (like the eggs on Rodolfo’s head, Amerigo Fontani, or the hat stolen from Ferruccio’s employer, Sergio Bustric, or the key flying from the window), or to create an emotional reaction during the film (the famous “Good morning princess“, or the thousand points needed to win the tank).
The first part also has another task which is performed perfectly: Benigni had no intention of making an accurate film in terms of historical and political reconstruction (it’s neither The Pianist, 2002, nor Schindler’s List, 1993). Rather, the film is a fairy tale, as also claimed by the narrator who opens and closes the movie, and there’s no intention to ridicule the actions of the Italian fascists during their dictatorship, nor those of the Germans during the war. Benigni, on the other hand, ridicules both of them very well (I repeat: he doesn’t laugh at their actions: one cannot laugh at genocide or at racist persecutions). We see the fascists committed to maintaining serious appearances showing off at elegant dinners in which everyone emerges as inept and stupid. Benigni treats the Nazis differently: they are people who lost touch with reality, who don’t even realize the horrendous crimes they are committing (Benigni doesn’t justify their actions, it’s simply the way he sees them). This can be understood from the reunion between Guido and Doctor Lessing (Horst Buchholz) who claims that he’s unable to sleep at night due to a riddle that he cannot solve. He doesn’t even realize that it’s his conscience keeping him awake, he’s responsible for dozens of deaths every day!
The second part is therefore tougher than the first, since it takes place in a concentration camp, but there’s no shortage of humor (above all, the translation of the instructions of the camp upon arrival). And there are strong moments too, like the discovery of the mountains of corpses and the inhuman forced labor. The ending, without needing to reveal it here, is touching.
So, what about Life is Beautiful? It’s a good movie, well directed and with a good cinematography: it doesn’t show its almost 25 years at all, and the script is fantastic. There are numerous scenes built as references to real facts (for example, the image of the prisoners in the bedroom when Guido and Giosuè arrive at the camp), to literary works (Guido taken away by two policemen is a nod to Pinocchio: five years later, Benigni would make his disastrous cinematic version of that), and to other films (like the reference to Ricomincio da tre, the 1981 movie in which his friend Massimo Troisi tried to move a vase with the power of the mind; or the one to The Shawshank Redemption, 1994, with the music played by the protagonist in the camp against the will of the guards).
Nicola Piovani’s soundtrack is memorable and it highlights well the two souls, comic and dramatic, of the film. Benigni is an excellent over the top protagonist of a story which is over the top while at the same time respecting the delicate themes of the movie. The same cannot be said of Nicoletta Braschi, who luckily only has few lines of dialogue throughout the film. I was surprised by the abrupt end of the first part which prevents some narrative arcs from being completed (what happens to Guido’s friend Ferruccio?). But these are small details, the film is an excellent example of two souls (surreal and dramatic) coexisting perfectly together, something which is not easy at all. Ciao!