Tuesday, October 4, 2011

1998 - Life Is Beautiful

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
Roberto Benigni
Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini, Giustino Durano, Sergio Bustric, Madre di Dora, Horst Buchholz
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
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.

Any film in a language that is foreign to me - which, embarrassingly, is every language other than English - has the unavoidable setback of requiring me to read the dialogue. In this instance, it is particularly unfortunate due to the loquaciousness of the main character. I'd much rather be looking at Benigni's face than at the bottom of the screen. It is, then, a testament to the power of the film that it is still so remarkably effective on an emotional level.

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.


  1. Charlie Chaplin once said that if he knew beforehand the extent of the Nazi atrocities, he probably would not have made The Great Dictator, brave as that film was. Roberto Benigni took a bigger chance with Life is Beautiful and although some found it ill-advised, I thought it was also a courageous movie. I think if it is viewed as a fable, the humanity it shows overcomes any issues with the appropriateness of the treatment. Certainly any realistic yardstick applied will shatter the precarious story line.

    I saw Life is Beautiful in a small art theater during its initial release and was deeply moved. I watched it once more on video and not again until this recent viewing. Roberto Benigni ‘s triumph was unfortunately diminished during the Oscar campaign with his antics at the ceremony. It is really too bad and underserved I think. I don’t believe that either George C. Scott or Marlon Brando’s refusal of their Best Actor Awards detracts from their magnificent performances. Roberto Benigni wasn’t my personal choice for Best Actor (that would be Ian McKellen), but he certainly deserved his nomination as well has his film’s many nominations and wins.

    You already pointed out the scene with Guido and Dr. Lessing that was so disheartening, showing the total lack of compassion of Lessing’s part. It was quite a sobering moment, and one that was needed.

    I think Life is Beautiful is Roberto Benigni’s masterpiece, and its place as one of the few foreign language films to achieve a Best Picture nomination well earned.

  2. Truly one of my favourite films of all time. I love the passion it has for life, even admist the chaos. :)