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.
is Beautiful (1998)
Starring: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi,
and Giorgio Cantarini
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.
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.
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)