johnlink ranks LA VITA E BELLA (LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL) (1997)

Finishing it up around ten minutes to midnight, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL turned out to be my last film watched of 2012. It’s a movie I’d never seen before, but always meant to. It wraps up a year with 191 movies watched, far and away the most I’ve watched in a calendar year since starting this project. It leaves me at 495 rankings after four years, which means I’ll hit number 500 sometime in early January. Anyway… on to the write-up.


I watched LA VITA E BELLA (LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL) (1997) on 12.31.12. It was my first viewing of the film.

This is an Italian film which was written, directed, and starred Roberto Benigni. It won Oscars for Best Foreign Language film and for best actor (Benigni himself). It received countless accolades and multiple best picture awards from a variety of festivals and organizations.

This is a polarizing film. IMDB’s metascore, which considers reviews from critics, gives it only 59 out of 100 points. Yet over 192,000 IMDB users have given it an average score of 8.5, placing it at #55 of the IMDB Top 250 (as of this writing).

It is fairly easy to see why this is a polarizing film. It is, ultimately, a comedy set within the Holocaust. To describe it in such simple terms is to do to the film an injustice. Benigni knows full well his subject, and he does not treat it with disrespect.

His Guido is a Jewish Italian with a flair for the comedic. He falls for Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), who is way out of his league. The first half of this movie considers their courting. He succeeds in winning her (despite her previous engagement  and they have a child together, Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini).

Half way through the film, the Nazis round up the Jews in the neighborhood and send them off to a concentration camp. Guido convinces Giosue that the entire thing is a game. If they win, they get a real-life tank at the end of it all.

But to describe this movie in such terms, again, fails it. The magic of this movie involves Benigni setting up jokes and knocking them down. Most memorably he does so in the beginning of the film with a key, a phrase, and a dry hat. His comedic timing is reminiscent of Chaplin. He bounds around the landscape with relentless energy, contorting his body or his face for the sake of humor. The reason the comedy in the concentration camp works is because Benigni has spent so much time meticulously setting up his character that we can’t help but be engaged despite the horrific setting.

That said, this isn’t the camp of Spielberg’s SCHINDLER’S LIST. There is a sense, sadly, that Guido and Giosue wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in Spielberg’s movie. Guido is able to do whatever he wants, and Guido is able to hide without detection. But the film is about hope and love, after all, so Benigni tells the story he wants to tell.

There is certainly a PG-13 sense to the violence. Spielberg has the girl in the red coat, Benigni has the girl with the dog. All of the death in this film happens off-screen, as if Benigni is shielding his audience the same way his Guido shields Giosue. There is one brutal shot of a pile of bodies, but the bodies are out of focus and almost inhuman in scope.

The performances in this are inspired. Benigni and Braschi have to play the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows in the course of two hours. Benigni plays the lows, even, with a hop in his step and a twinkle in his eye. Only a moment with a doctor, which does not go as planned, can shock him into reality.

The themes of this movie are fairly obvious. The title gives away its perspective. Yet this is not a world which completely lacks reality. In the end, Benigni is smart enough to understand the need for consequences in a film of this nature. Yet, what survives is a sense of optimism. What survives is full of life. And, yes, it is quite beautiful.





~ by johnlink00 on January 1, 2013.

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