Another name-dropping story: I once again had the simultaneously exciting and humbling experience of rubbing shoulders with celebrities while serving them dinner. At a charity event last night, I presented plates to both Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, who very politely offered a simple, "Thank you." See, kids? Fame doesn't mean you have to dispense with manners.
This past weekend, Kat and I sat down to watch another Best Picture contender from 1998...
Life Is Beautiful
Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini, Giustino Durano, Sergio Bustric, Madre di Dora, Horst Buchholz
3 wins, including Best Actor (Benigni) and Best Foreign Language Film
Fun-loving Italian Guido Orefice (Benigni) and his good buddy Ferruccio (Bustric) arrive in Arezzo to try their luck in a big city ... well, biggish city. Almost immediately, Guido has a chance meeting with the beautiful schoolteacher Dora (Braschi), bumping into her (literally) a few more times before falling head over heels (literally) for her. Unperturbed by her engagement to a jerk, he rides in on a painted horse and sweeps her off her feet (literally).
Years later, the two are married with an adorable young son named Joshua (Cantarini). But their happy life is soon turned upside down by the horrific realities of World War II. Because they are Jewish, Guido, Joshua and Guido's uncle Eliseo (Durano) are taken away to a concentration camp. Dora, although not Jewish, demands to be sent with them so that she can be with her family. While at the camp, Guido insists to Joshua that the entire experience is one large game with a tank as the first prize. Through imaginative, and often brave, acts of quick-thinking, Guido attempts to shield his son from the tragic truth of their situation.
In a way, Life is Beautiful is two films in one - a slapstick romantic comedy with a drama as its companion piece. Both are equally captivating and they are perfectly matched, seamlessly switching from one to the other. The first half is unabashedly silly and romantically sweet. Roberto Benigni's old-fashioned style of slapstick is starkly Chaplinesque, as if the Holocaust-themed comedy needed another reason to be reminiscent of The Great Dictator.
At the midway point, the film takes a surprisingly smooth turn to the serious. Cleverly, though, the comedy is not entirely pushed aside. Quite the contrary. The improvisational nature of Benigni's character, that was so delightfully set up during the opening scenes, pays off dividends in the film's latter half. In fact, the entire premise succeeds precisely because of Guido's personality. He is essentially the glue that sticks the two potentially incongruous genres together.
Benigni won the Academy's Best Actor prize for his buffoonish performance (delivering an equally buffoonish speech when he accepted the film's Foreign Language Film win). But his buffoonery is just so ridiculously charming, and he is extremely adept at recognising when to turn it off. His face when he realises Dr. Lessing's nervous discomfort is only due to a particularly hard-to-solve riddle is nothing short of heartbreaking. Benigni's real-life wife Braschi serves well as his foil in the comedic moments of the first half, even if she is mostly relegated to longing looks in the second. And what a find is Giorgio Cantarini, the adorable young boy who plays Joshua. Praise clearly needs to be given to Benigni yet again for directing such a young child to such an amicable performance.