AN UNFORGETTABLE FABLE THAT PROVES LOVE, FAMILY AND IMAGINATION CONQUER ALL.
When Roberto Benigni won the Foreign Language Film Oscar for Life Is Beautiful, he was so excited he climbed over chairs to get to the stage. It was a night of triumph for the comedian, and Italy; when he won the Best Actor award later that night, he was following in the footsteps of Sophia Loren decades earlier.
Mel Brooks was not impressed though; as a veteran of films that made fun of Nazis he thought Life Is Beautiful made a mistake and trivialized the suffering of Jews in concentration camps. Revisiting this film 23 years later, it’s hard not to see his point.
Finding work as a waiter
In late 1930s Italy, a young Jew, Guido Orefice (Benigni), arrives in Tuscany where he finds work as a waiter in a restaurant his uncle (Giustino Durano) runs. When he sees Dora (Nicoletta Braschi) he falls in love, even though she’s about to marry a wealthy man. Guido uses every trick in the book to charm her and finally she can’t resist him, literally joining him on the back of a horse during her engagement party, eloping. A few years later, northern Italy is occupied by the Germans and Guido and his young son Giosuè (Giorgio Cantarini) are seized and put on a train to a concentration camp. Dora joins them after pleading with a Nazi officer. In the camp, Guido does everything to make his son believe it’s all part of an elaborate game…
Finding inspiration in a book and his father
Benigni’s friends advised him not to make this movie. After all, he’s not a Jew and his talent for comedy did not seem well suited for a story about the Holocaust. But Benigni insisted and did find the right inspiration, partly from the book ”In the End, I Beat Hitler” where the author Rubino Romeo Salmonì used irony and black humor to discuss his experiences from Auschwitz, partly from his father Luigi Benigni who spent time in a Nazi labor camp. Whenever Luigi talked to his children about what took place in the camp, he used a sense of humor as a way of not scaring them but also as personal therapy. When he set about to make this film, Roberto Benigni and his co-writer Vincenzo Cerami avoided setting the story in an actual camp, preferring to keep fiction and facts apart.
Much of this massively popular film is very well made, with Benigni’s nods to Charlie Chaplin (delightful if you can take it; some will undoubtedly be put off by his crazy, happy antics) and to certain famous predecessors in Italian film history, not least Bicycle Thieves (1948). The story is a celebration of hope in the face of utter despair, and a tribute to fatherhood; there are laughs and tears along the way, emotions nicely reinforced by composer Nicola Piovani whose Oscar-winning score has become a minor classic.
The scenes in the concentration camp are among the film’s most memorable, but they constantly run the risk of ringing false. Everything is just a little too clean and polished, with very few signs of the real hardship every prisoner in those places suffered. I suppose Benigni was walking a fine line between reality and the fantasy his character was creating for his son. But the results are at times a little awkward, standing in the way of what should be a tremendous impact.
Life Is Beautiful 1997-Italy. 116 min. Color. Produced by Gianluigi Braschi, Elda Ferri. Directed by Roberto Benigni. Screenplay: Vincenzo Cerami, Roberto Benigni. Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli. Music: Nicola Piovani. Cast: Roberto Benigni (Guido Orefice), Nicoletta Braschi (Dora Orefice), Giorgio Cantarini (Giosuè Orefice), Giustino Durano, Sergio Bustric, Marisa Paredes… Horst Buchholtz.
Trivia: Original title: La vita è bella. Benigni and Nicoletta Braschi are married in real life.
Oscars: Best Actor (Benigni), Foreign Language Film, Original Dramatic Score. BAFTA: Best Actor (Benigni). Cannes: Grand Prize. European Film Awards: Best Film, Actor (Benigni).
Last word: “We need, as clowns, to be badly treated. It keeps you alive. It keeps you real. I like it when they pthh [he makes an extravagant spitting gesture]. But a genius like Fellini knew: he considered clowns as benefactors, as saints, as the maximum of tragedy. I think that sometimes only comedians can reach the peaks of tragedy. At the end of ‘Life Is Beautiful’, I use the lowest gag in comedy, dressing as a woman, but in this case, it is the very peak of tragedy.” (Benigni, The Guardian)