movie film review | chris tookey

Life Is Beautiful / La Vita E Bella

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  Life Is Beautiful / La Vita E Bella Review
Tookey's Rating
7 /10
Average Rating
7.33 /10
Guido: Roberto Benigni , Dora: Nicoletta Braschi, Giosue: Giorgio Cantarini
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Directed by: Roberto Benigni
Written by: Vincenzo Cerami and Roberto Benigni

Released: 1998
Origin: Italy
Colour: C
Length: 114

A clownish Italian Jew (Roberto Benigni, pictured) tries to ensure his sonís survival in a Concentration Camp.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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This Italian heart-warmer is on course to become the most commercially successful foreign-language film of all time. It won three Oscars, including Best Foreign-Language Film and Actor. It will be adored by millions, and just as heartily loathed by others.

Why? mainly because it is an attempt to find humour in the Holocaust.

In the first half of the picture, set in 1939 Tuscany, an impulsive romantic and would-be bookseller (played by the director, co-writer and Italy's favourite comedian, Roberto Benigni) learns to become a waiter in a grand hotel. He also woos Dora (played by Benigni's real-life wife, Nicoletta Braschi), who's the beautiful schoolteacher fiancee of a local fascist. Although the background is of rising Italian nationalism, the atmosphere is sunny, carefree and about as realistic as an open-air production of The Marriage of Figaro.

Benigni's physical clowning recalls the heyday of Jacques Tati and verges on brilliance in such scenes as the one when he absent-mindedly carries a poodle on a tiny tray. He also has a verbal dexterity reminiscent of Danny Kaye, improvising his way out of emergencies with speeches of mounting outrageousness.

Unfortunately, his view of the ideal woman is reminiscent of Chaplin at his worst. Dora is a bland, bovine creation, whose role seems simply to gaze adoringly at Benigni and laugh at his jokes. The first half is likeable but very corny, ultra-romantic comedy, as Benigni strives to portray the Thirties as a cute, pastoral idyll.

Then the tone darkens. We are reminded that the waiter, now married to Dora and the owner of a bookshop, is Jewish. He tries to explain to his son (Giorgio Cantarini) who looks five or six, why Jews and dogs are not allowed in a local shop. It's a game, he says, in which shopkeepers arbitrarily exclude one sort of person or another. They must remember to put up a sign in their bookshop, saying No Visigoths And Spiders.

Is the father patronizing his son by telling him lies, or preserving his innocence? Either way, this is a foretaste of nastier things to come. Our hero is transported to a concentration camp with his son. The gentile mother bravely follows to another part of the camp, out of love for her family.

In the camp, the father continues his policy of preserving his son's faith in humanity at the same time as trying to save his life. Our hero learns that old men and children are the first to be taken to the gas chambers, so he teaches his son to hide and be stoical in the face of hunger and hardship. He pretends they are part of a game, the object of which is to earn enough points to become the winner of a tank.

Even in this darker second half, there are hilarious set-pieces, notably one where Benigni acts as interpreter to a German guard and explains the rules of his invented game to his son and a bewildered audience of fellow-inmates.

Some of the best moments that follow are echoes of The Great Dictator, in which Chaplin ridiculed fascism. Unfortunately, the worst moments reminded me of a justly forgotten Jerry Lewis comedy from 1972, The Day the Clown Cried, about a clown whose job was to entertain Jewish children on their way to the gas chambers.

I can well understand why anyone might be offended by Benigni's portrait of a concentration camp. The brutality, racism and hopelessness are all underplayed. The prisoners don't even look very underfed.

But it's all part of Benigni's grand design. He has to soften the realities of the concentration camp slightly, or there could be no laughter. Sophisticated audiences will realize that Benigni - like his hero - is playing an elaborate game with us. He is asking us to go along with him, and suspend our disbelief.

After all, it is incredible that Benigni's character could enlist his suffering colleagues into preserving the illusions of his small son. Equally far-fetched is the moment when Benigni nips into an empty office and serenades his wife through the camp's loudspeaker. It is meant to charm, but it's just plain silly. He may be an impulsive romantic, but would he endanger his own life and that of his son, to make such a grand but futile gesture? And why does his action have no repercussions?

Life Is Beautiful never sets out to be a realistic representation. As the voice-over makes clear from the outset, this is a fable. Yet the reality and the horror lurk all the time in the background, as when Benigni rounds a wall in the camp and comes across a pile of corpses.

The reason for the film's huge success is that it works marvellously as a romantic, comic allegory about the resilience of the human spirit, about how people use humour to save them from going mad in the face of horror.

Most of all, it is a moving portrayal of fatherly affection. It reminds us of a time when parents worked harder than they do today to preserve their children's innocence.

Benigni may take the idea of preserving that innocence to ludicrous extremes, but he does so with a purpose. He shows us an idealised portrait of parental selflessness. In doing so, he shows us something of value that has gone largely missing from our society.

Parts of Life Is Beautiful made me cringe, and some of its sentimental over-simplifications struck me as wilfully dishonest. Yet it is often funny, and - love it or hate it (I felt both emotions) - it is an extraordinary, if slightly barmy, achievement.

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