Directed By Roberto Benigni
By: Eric G.
Life Is Beautiful is the first slapstick Holocaust film I’ve ever seen. Roberto Benigni directs, co-writes, and stars in this fable about being a Jewish merchant in World War II era Italy. Benigni plays somewhat of a clown vying for the heart of a beautiful young schoolteacher, who is engaged to a powerful Fascist. The film jaunts along happily for the first half as Benigni’s character, Guido, woos Dora, his “princess”, away from her controlling fiancé through a series of unbelievable, yet charming coincidences. The romantic half of the film is a playground for Benigni’s light-hearted humor, where even politics is an easy target.
Guido and his new wife share a few years together before the war really heightens. They now have a son, Joshua, played exuberantly by Giorgio Cantarini, who wants to be just like his father. As the tension towards Jews becomes apparent even to Joshua, Guido is forced either to explain the situation to his son or to divert his attention. Guido chooses the latter, and when they are shipped off to a concentration camp he convinces his son it’s all just an elaborate game. The average person’s spirit would surely have dampened in a death camp, but Guido’s patience is boundless as he never once even for a second allows his son to know the truth, despite the all the death and horror surrounding them.
The second half of the film plays on our emotions because we can’t help but laugh at Guido’s hijinks even though we all know the horror of it all. The story obviously loses much of the fairy-tale air that made the first half so frivolous, but Guido does his best to keep it alive. Benigni’s direction is utterly unpretentious and heart-rending. The themes are so simple and universal that Benigni barely has to help us along. He lets the story speak for itself. The sacrifice that Guido makes for his son is out of unconditional love and true altruism. Life Is Beautiful explores the depth of the bond between a father and a son and how humor can survive even in the arms of death.