Original release: December 20th, 1997
Running time: 116 minutes
Country of origin: Italy
Original language: Italian with English subtitles
Writer and director: Roberto Benigni
Cast: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini
I firmly believe in the power of love. No matter how terrible everything may seem, a pat on the shoulder or a kiss on the forehead can make it seem surmountable. Loneliness multiplies feelings of helplessness, so whether someone’s there in person, on the phone, or even by email, knowing that you’re not alone makes it so much easier to just get through the day. But what are job interviews, looming deadlines and running low on clean socks compared to World War II? Was love ever enough to get through such a massive trauma? Could love alone be enough to survive even a concentration camp?
Life Is Beautiful explores the power of love in some of the most extreme circumstances imaginable. In the beginning, life for Guido (Roberto Benigni) really is beautiful. Fond on hi-jinks and brimming with life, he’s moved to Tuscany with big dreams of opening a bookshop whilst he works in his uncle’s hotel. There’s slapstick humour aplenty as he romances local schoolteacher Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), tripping over chairs whilst he’s looking at her and riding a gift-wrapped pony into the banquet hall. For his final trick, he steals her away from her own engagement party.
It’s true that it’s not all plain sailing. Guido is Jewish and Dora is not, Guido is poor, whilst Dora is from a wealthy aristocratic family, and Dora’s mother just doesn’t approve of their union. Guido shows us that with a good heart, hard work and persistence, it is possible to get everything that you want. He lives with a boundless enthusiasm and optimism that’s contagious, and conducive to being very happy with a great life, achieving what he dreamed of.
Then, we fast forward five years. Guido is happily married and he and Dora have a son, Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini). Even Dora and her mother have made up. But, World War II has begun, and being Jewish, Guido has cause for concern. Giosue is four years old, and Guido makes it a priority to shield him as much as humanly possible from the atrocities happening around them. He makes jokes and turns everything into a big game. But an exaggerated goose-step down the street flanked by Fascist leaders is just the beginning as Guido is taken to a concentration camp.
The love he has for his son takes precedent over everything else. Guido understands how the world works, how the Nazi party works, how the concentration camps work. Giosue does not, his innocence is still in tact, and he trusts his father completely. One of the most moving scenes, probably my favourite from the entire film, takes place at the camp. A guard asks the cabin of men if anyone can speak German, and Guido steps up.
The guard tells them the rules of the camp, and Guido translates into Italian the rules of the game that Giosue must live by if he is to get his 1000 points and win a tank; no crying, no asking for his mother, and no asking for food. Giosue laughs as his father makes fun of the man standing next to him, not knowing that if any of the guards could speak Italian, Guido would be shot immediately. It serves as a coping mechanism for Guido too, as an escape for him as well as his son. He has someone to love so something to live for, something to strive for, because his family is what matters to him the most.
Benigni shows us that there’s a courage in his comedy, and presents us with a world where there is no room for tears or piety. While terrible situations can give birth to some of the most inspiring acts of courage and selfless love, Benigni gives us a declaration of love and life, of carrying on not just because you have to, but because you really want to come through for those closest to your heart.
Frances likes words and pictures, regardless of media. She finds great comfort and escape in film, and is attracted to anything character-driven with a strong story. Through these stories, she will find meaning in the world. Three movies that Frances thinks are really good for this are You and Me and Everyone We Know (Miranda July), I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK (Chan-Wook Park), and How I Ended This Summer (Alexei Popogrebsky).
When Frances grows up, she would like to write words and make pictures and have cool people recognise her on the street and tell her that they really enjoy her work.
She can be found overreacting and over-caffeinated on Twitter @penny_face, a childhood moniker from her grandmother owing to her gloriously round face.