Life is beautiful, is a movie filled with light-hearted Italian humour in the midst of one of the most tragic events in history. The clever contrast causes the film to be extremely emotionally complex, leaving me in tears several hours after the credits rolled.
The Italian comedian-director Roberto Benigni’s film, Life Is Beautiful (La Vita È Bella), won dozens of international awards. It swept the 1998 Academy Awards with awards for Best Actor, Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Dramatic Musical Score.
“As the awards attest, millions of viewers worldwide were moved to laughter, tears, and effusive testimonials to the film’s spiritual depth” (Haskins, 2001, p.1)
The film follows the story of Guido a charming Jewish Italian, who finds clever and comedic ways to win over his love interest Dora. The movie then fast forwards to the height of Nazi control in Italy, the two lovers have a son, Joshua, and the whole family are being sent to Nazi concentration camps. Guido then attempts to shield his young son from the cruelties of the camp by making a game out of the experience. An example of this is Guido as a translator.
Guido who has nothing but his spirit, uses comedy as his only weapon to protect his son.
The film caters for its originally intended Italian audience through the story structure, language, slapstick humour and the Italian casting.
A key feature is the sequencing of the story. The movie is a tragic-comedy, structured around a tension between the first half, which has the most comic sequences, and the second half of the narrative, which contains the tragic concentration camp scenes. The two distinct half’s highlight Benigni being conscious of the Italian practice of dividing screenings into two temporal segments divided by an intermission. (Haskins, 2001)
Despite the widespread love for the film, it also had it’s negative critics. David Denby’s infamous review describes the film as, a benign form of Holocaust denial. He argues that it does not capture the true experience of the Holocaust due to no depictions of the extreme violence and dehumanization which were an unavoidable part of life in the death camps. This also caused discussion of whether comedy was appropriate to use in such a solemn setting.
Others argue that a true depiction of the Holocaust in all it’s horrific nature, was not the intention of the film and I tend to agree.
” ‘Life Is Beautiful’ is not about Nazis and Fascists, but about the human spirit. It is about rescuing whatever is good and hopeful from the wreckage of dreams. About hope for the future.” (Roger Ebert, 1998 Review)
The film continues to be a success with a score of 80% on rotten tomatoes and a 96% audience score.
I love this movie as it never fails to create a strong emotional connection with the characters and it is beautiful watching hope being found in the midst of tragedy.
Egbert, R. 1998, Review: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/life-is-beautiful-1998
Haskins, C. 2001, “Art, Morality, and the Holocaust: The Aesthetic Riddle of Benigni’s Life is Beautiful”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism vol.59(4) pp.373-384
Milam, B. 2013, “Life is beautiful: Comedy and the Holocaust” https://brettmilam.com/2013/05/23/life-is-beautiful-comedy-and-the-holocaust/