I know that this film came out in 1997/98, but – following my post on Italian Jewish film – it is valuable for me to publish my review of Life is Beautiful, which was originally published in the print edition of the Australian Jewish News on December 18, 1998, when the film was released in Australia.
(Directed by Roberto Benigni; written by Vincenzo Cerami and Roberto Benigni)
When Charlie Chaplin produced, directed, wrote and starred in The Great Dictator in 1940, it was not easy for him. His own studio (United Artists, of which he was a co-owner) did not want to make it, and many Nazi sympathisers actively opposed the film. But Chaplin did make the film, and it eventually became his most financially successful film ever. His political satire and use of humour was controversial, but his insights into warnings about the coming Holocaust were prescient. Many people at the time thought Chaplin was Jewish (no definite evidence exists to substantiate this), but his persona drew heavily on Jewish comic traditions including vaudeville.
In 1958, The Great Dictator was joined by Me and the Colonel (starring Danny Kaye as a Jewish refugee in France) as the only two “comedies” about the Holocaust. Few people would have believed that anyone would ever again attempt to make such a film. Until now.
With the release of Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (La Vita E Bella), the history of Holocaust film-making is being rewritten yet again – just as we are still attempting to absorb the profound and continuing impact of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Don’t mistake Life is Beautiful: this is no Schindler’s List – it does not have the budget, the scope, the emotional film-making skills of Spielberg nor the accessibility (it is in Italian), but it is still one of the most unexpected and significant Holocaust films in recent memory.
Roberto Benigni is a highly acclaimed (non-Jewish) comic Italian film-maker and entertainer, known for his interesting English-language performances in Down by Law and Son of the Pink Panther, and his own Italian comedies including Johnny Stecchino and The Monster. While his talents are well-appreciated in his native Italy, it is usually only “art-house” English language audiences who are familiar with him. But like most comics, Benigni has a deeper and a darker side. His fascination with Italy’s history during the Second World War (his father was imprisoned in a German labor camp during the war) and in particular the fate of Italy’s Jews gradually lead him to direct, co-write and star in Life is Beautiful.
Life is Beautiful commences in 1939 and tells the fable-like story of Guido (Benigni), who arrives in Tuscany with his friend Ferruccio (Sergio Bustric) with the dream of opening a bookshop. Anti-Semitism is on the rise, but the two ignore all signals, and the incurable romantic Guido falls in love with the lovely schoolteacher Dora (Nicoletta Braschi). Except that Dora is engaged to the local fascist leader, and Guido is Jewish. Guido takes a waiter position with his uncle in the local “Grand Hotel” (looking like it came right out of Hollywood in 1939), and eventually woos and wins the adoring Dora.
The story then picks up some years later: Guido and Dora are still living in the town, along with their son Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini), and Guido has the small bookshop of his dreams. But the Germans have now occupied this part of Italy, and Guido and Giosue are rounded up and put on a train bound for a concentration camp. The non-Jewish Dora insists on being put on the same train, and finds herself in the same camp, although separated from her loved ones. Desperate to shield his son from the horrors they are experiencing, Guido creates an imaginary world and elaborate game for Giosue as a means of getting him through the terrible experiences.
As Guido, Benigni gives a stunning performance which appears to be half Charlie Chaplin and half Groucho Marx. Benigni has clearly studied Chaplin and modeled much of his film – and his performance – on the classical master of comedy. The hints are there, both large and small. Like Chaplin in The Great Dictator, he even gets to imitate (and satirise) fascists on a number of occasions. Guido’s Italian “translation” of a German guard’s speech is a traditional and highly effective set piece.
Unlike contemporary American films that start loud and end the same way, Life is Beautiful slowly builds: we only realise that Guido is Jewish one-third of the way into the film, and only half-way in does the tone change entirely. The film maintains a slightly impressionistic quality, just this side of full realism – and this ingenious presentation allows Benigni to delve into the horrors while never losing our attention.
Life is Beautiful has won numerous awards (including a tremendous reception at last July’s Jerusalem Film Festival) and is a serious candidate for the “Best Foreign Film” Oscar (Note: At the 71st Academy Awards, the film won Oscars for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score, and Best Foreign Language Film, with Benigni winning Best Actor for his role. The film also received Academy Award nominations for Directing, Film Editing, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Picture.)
The comedy treatment of some Holocaust themes may prove controversial for some, but at its heart this is a very, very serious film about basic themes of love, life and death. It is about the overwhelming and heartbreaking love of a man for his wife and for his son in the context of the Holocaust and Italian Jewish history, and is an outstanding achievement.