Life is Beautiful is a 1997 Italian film directed by Roberto Benigni who also stars in the main role and Nicoletta Braschi who portrays his wife Dora and Giorgio Cantarina as Joshua.
The movie is divided in to halves. The first half is purely comedy. The film takes place in 1939, Italy. Roberto Benigni plays Guido Orefice, an honest and comical man that always makes the best out of bad situations. He moves into the city to find work and always bumps in accidently with his future wife, Dora, which he falls in love at first sight. Dora is set to be married with a wealthy but overconfident man, who Guido also runs across countless times during the film (resulting in not so pleasant meetings that involve eggs). Guido persuades Dora to marry him since she is clearly not happy with her husband to-be. After realizing that she is in fact in love with Guido and that he is a better man, she decides to run off with him during the ceremony of their wedding. They leave the wedding on a horse that has been painted in green and covered in anti-Semitic insults. They arrive to Guido’s home where they decide to spend the rest of their lives together.
The first half of the film is there for the audience to care about Guido as a character. Without the brilliant, convincing and honest performance of Roberto Benigni the film might have not succeeded. He is the heart and soul of this film and Benigni absolutely deserved his Oscar for best actor. He also has fantastic chemistry with Nicoletta Braschi and you believed them as a couple (even if they are a real one in real life). The first half of the film is merely character development and is there to move the story along.
The second part, which is a lot more dramatic but has a few comedic elements, takes place a couple of years later, where we learn that Guido and Dora are married and have a child named Joshua. Guido has opened up a book shop downtown and they are living a quiet life as a family. It is only then when we learn that Guido is Jewish. Later, during World War 2, Guido, his uncle Elisio and Joshua are taken by the Nazi on Joshua’s birthday and sent to a concentration camp along with Dora who begs one of the soldiers to take her along even though she is not Jewish. They then arrived to the concentration camp and men and women are divided into two groups.
In the camp, Guido hides their true situation to his son and tells him that all of this is a game and that he needs to get to a thousand points to win a real tank and that there is no crying, no asking for food or complain and ask for his mother, he will lose points. Joshua is reluctant at first to play along but Guido always finds ways to persuade him in order to hide the harsh reality that they are now in. Joshua has no idea where they are or the cruelty that is surrounding them, due to his father’s convincing performance and his own innocence.
After several weeks, the war is finally coming to an end and the Nazi are evacuating the camp. During the evacuation, Guido decides to escape and go get his wife. He brings Joshua in a sweatbox and tells him to wait until he comes back and if he should take a while to return he instructs Joshua to wait until there is no one left and everything is quiet. Guido sets out to rescue Dora, but is captured by the Nazi before he gets to her and is executed.
The next morning, the soldiers have deserted the camp and are all gone. The survivors come out from their hiding places and leave the camp also. The last to come out is Joshua who is saved by the American soldiers who arrive in tanks. Joshua believes that he has won, unaware that his father is dead. The American soldier lets Joshua ride along with him and as they leave the camp, Joshua spots his mother who has survived. The two are reunited at last and Joshua remains untouched to the horrors and suffering of the war.
The writing is superb in this film. The dialogue flows and it’s also very comedic at times even when you’re supposed to feel bad for example when Guido is supposed to translate the camp’s rule’s and instead informs his son about the rules of the game and improvises what the soldier is saying. Even though the situation is grim and terrible, the way that the scene is executed and the way that Guido acts is hilarious and that’s a true testament to Robert Benigni’s direction, acting and script.
The supporting cast is also fantastic. Nicoletta Braschi is amazing as his wife and their chemistry really works on screen and it also helps that they are a real couple in real life.
Joshua is also great and gives a convincing performance which is not easy for a child actor. They usually end up annoying and just kiddish but he felt real and honest.
Life is beautiful is about hope and love and the survival of the human spirit. It’s about one father’s quest to conceal his son’s innocence to the harsh realities of war. It also demonstrates the importance of never giving up no matter how hard or difficult life becomes and that life is always worth living.
Dr. Lessing: If you speak my name, I vanish. What am I?
Guido: Il Silencio! [silence]
Guido: What kind of place is this? It’s beautiful: Pigeons fly, women fall from the sky! I’m moving here!
Elisio: Nothing is more necessary than the unnecessary.