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Life is Beautiful (1998)
Rated PG13

Starring: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, and Giorgio Cantarini

Rating:
****1/2
out of
*****

Roberto Benigni co-wrote, directed and stars in this comedy-drama about the horrors of World War II. It's an unusual film that begins as a light-hearted romantic comedy and ends with a descent into the hell of WWII labor camps.

The film begins with Guido Orefice (Benigni) and his friend arrving in town and attempting to open a bookstore. His meeting with town officials to get permission to open the store touches off a long string of humorous situations involving Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), a beautiful schoolteacher and her Facist fiance. Guido falls in love with Dora instantly, but has to work around many obstacles -- his job, her fiance, her family -- to get her to reciprocate. Finally, however, she does and, as 6 years pass offscreen, we learn they are married and have a son.

In what look to be modern-day versions of many silent film sight gags, Benigni glides through the first half of the film in a positive, joyous mood that's almost impossible to fault. Even through the filter of English subtitles, Benigni's attitude is infectious and fun. The love story, while lighthearted and seemingly tame, is a breath of fresh air in today's world of sex and lust movies. It's almost as if it were taken from a storybook.

However, the gears are abruptly shifted in the second half of the film. Guido is a Jew, and the Germans have begun placing the Italian Jews into concentration camps. Guido and his son, Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini) are taken from their home and put on a train bound for one of the camps. When Dora returns home to find them missing, she asks to be put on the train as well, even though she is a Gentile.

Guido, although he knows full-well what is going on, begins to make a game out of the proceedings. He tells Joshua that the whole thing is, in fact, a game that has been planned for his birthday. If they can win the game, the prize is a tank -- not a toy tank that Joshua's used to playing with -- but a real, driveable tank. Guido also attempts to send messages to Dora, who he knows is in the camp, but in a separate area. As conditions worsen in the camp, Guido continues to modify the rules of the game to keep Joshua's, and his own, spirit of hope alive.

Although some critics have taken this movie to task for providing a less-than-accurate portrayal of the Nazi camps, I see no need for this movie to be another Schindler's List. The film's transition from lighthearted romanticism to the characters being taken from their home, with no choice in the matter, serves as a strong enough wake-up call that things are taking a turn for the worse and that no one is safe.

Roberto Benigni's performance is the strongest aspect of the film. Giorgio Cantarini is excellent as Joshua. He comes across as a very intelligent little boy, which is what we'd expect with parents like Guido and Dora. Nicoletta Braschi's Dora is the weakest link, if only because the film doesn't provide too much of an indication of who she really is underneath her blushing, seemingly shy exterior. She's still quite good though. All of the performances are suitably strong, so a "weak" performance here is relative.

This film deserves its Best Picture Academy Award nomination for daring to be different, as well as providing a positive film that truly does show that life is beautiful. It may pull its punches a bit in dealing with such a heavy subject, but it doesn't need to hammer its point home either. A fine film all around.

Trivia: Roberto Benigni says the title comes from a quote by Leon Trotsky. In Mexico, knowing he was about to be killed by Stalin's assassins, Trotsky saw his wife in the garden and wrote that, in spite of everything, "life is beautiful." (Source: The Internet Movie Database)

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