When I was a sophomore in high school, my history teacher broke precedent and offered us extra credit if we went to a certain movie that was playing at the arthouse cinema downtown. Getting extra credit for watching a movie was a no-brainer to me, so one cold, snowy Saturday night in January, I called up my best friend to see if she wanted to go see it with me. Her mom asked what the movie was about, and when Tiffany said that it was a comedy about the Holocaust, her mom flipped out and almost refused to let her go. The extra credit was too good to pass up, though, so my brother drove us down to the theater. When we got there, my jaw dropped. The line for tickets wound out the door, filled the sidewalk, and bumped up onto the street. We didn’t get in to the early showing and barely made it into the late one. But after I had seen Life is Beautiful, I understood. I knew why people were willing to stand on the sidewalk in the dark and the freezing cold to experience this movie.
So what’s the story? Guido is a young man who moves to the city hoping to open a bookshop but willing to work as a waiter until that dream comes true. He meets the beautiful Dora, his “pricipessa,” and wins her heart when he shares with her the joy he finds in life. Despite the disapproval of Dora’s mother, they marry and have a little boy, Giosuè. But it’s not safe to be a Jew in Italy during World War II, and Guido, his uncle, and Giosuè are taken to a labor camp. Dora insists on going, even though she is not Jewish. Giosuè is too young to understand what’s going on, and Guido is determined to keep Giosuè in the dark. He invents a story that the camp is game with challenges to be won. Life in the camp gets harder and darker, but Guido keeps up his spirits and humor so that his child won’t see the horrors of the concentration camp.
The Good: Roberto Benigni had to tread very carefully with this film. When you are making a comedy about such a serious topic, everything has to be perfect. If it’s too over the top, it will be disrespectful. If it’s too subtle, people are going to wonder if it was meant to be funny. I think Nicola Piovani managed to walk that line perfectly with his musical score. The music underscored the darker moments, but also brightened the happier ones.
The acting was also marvelous. Roberto Benigni showed so many facets of a complex man, a man willing to do anything and everything for love. Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni’s real-life wife, did an excellent job playing a woman who finds the courage to accept love and fight to keep it when she finds it. Giorgio Cantarini is adorable as Giosuè. The rest of the cast was excellent, as well.
The Bad: The only thing I don’t like about this movie is that Guido’s friend Ferruccio disappears. Once Dora and Guido leave the restaurant, he never shows up again. While I realize that friendships shift and change over time, I would have liked to have seen him again. But really, that’s a tiny quibble.
The Ugly: Never ever ever watch this movie dubbed. Only watch it in its original Italian with subtitles. I checked the movie out on VHS not long after it was released on video, and I was shocked that it wasn’t in Italian. The dubbing made me almost physically sick. It loses so much of its charm and life when its dubbed. Don’t do it!
Oscars Won: Best foreign language film; best actor in a leading role (Roberto Benigni); best music, original dramatic score
Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best director; best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen; best film editing