Retro Review: Life Is Beautiful
There is a moment in Roman Polanski’s 2002 film ‘The Pianist’ when a wheelchair-bound man is ordered by a Nazi officer to stand up; he quite clearly cannot and, as punishment for his disobedience, is promptly thrown out of a window, falling several stories to his death. Moments like this fill all films that attempt to capture the horror of the Holocaust, and every one of them fills the viewer with uncontrollable anger and outrage at the mere idea that such evil could ever have truly taken place. Life is Beautiful is perhaps unique in not containing a single moment such as this. This is because Roberto Benigni did not make Life is Beautiful about the Holocaust, but about a man, his attitude toward life and his love for his wife and child.
The first act of the film, filled with classical slapstick comedy techniques (such as the placing of a hat containing eggs onto a man’s head), sets up Benigni’s character, Guido, using his confident wit and imagination to manipulate his bad luck and turn it to his favour. Falling instantly for local school teacher, Dora, (played by Benigni’s wife Nicoletta Braschi) when he saves her from a dangerous drop, he goes out of his way to charm her; with extraordinary and entertaining coincidence at his side he manages to win her over, and she leaves her unlikeable fiancé for him. These first scenes are very funny and Benigni is convincing as a man without a care in the world, who knows exactly what he wants, but has no obvious agenda (other than to open a bookshop).
Throughout this section of the film, the current of racism that poisoned much of Europe at the time is introduced. It is not subtle, but neither is it forced – a sign forbidding Jews to enter hung on a shop; a school textbook question focusing on the extermination of unwanted people – Guido is flippant in the face of this trouble; as a Jew he is aware of the danger, but laughs it off. It is therefore a very sharp and uneasy change in the mood of the film when Guido and his son are forcibly taken and put onto a train to the camps. Dora, refusing to be separated from her family, orders a German soldier to let her get on the train as well. This is one of many moments when suspension of disbelief is challenged – in any other film with the same subject it would be a problem, but here it is almost essential.
The rest of the film then focuses primarily on Guido’s struggle to keep his child from being afraid of the camp; he does this by convincing him he is in a game – if he plays by the rules, he’ll win the grand prize: a tank. Charlie Chaplin knew when he made The Great Dictator that there is nothing funny about the Nazis’ actions (and he did not know even half the extent of their cruelty). No successful comedy can be made out of what they did and there could never be humour in Life is Beautiful if it had attempted to make them appear incompetent for a joke.
However, the fact that it shows them as they were, ruthless and in complete control of the camps, breaks the unrestrained humour of the first act and replaces it with an almost unbearable tension. Guido shuffles along a knife’s edge, trying to keep his son from being spotted and killed, all the while trying to make it appear to him that he is dancing. His courage borders on recklessness and every laugh comes through tightly gritted teeth.
Visually it is impressive, but no fancy footwork or stylistic tricks are employed to make the camera work particularly memorable. Nor is the overall story the factor that will stick in one’s mind long after it has finished. Instead it is the little details that matter, especially the details that make up the character of Guido – his mannerisms and indelible spirit. The people who surround him do not have anywhere near as difficult an acting job as Benigni (he won an Oscar for Best Actor) but it is still worth noting that their performances have few faults. Giorgio Cantarini is as good as any top child actor and his innocent naivety is pitched perfectly so that it does not become tiresome. Braschi is also good as Dora, though at times her wide-eyed stares can appear a little melodramatic.
The conclusion to the film feels inevitable and is all the more sad because of it, but the story is wrapped up so beautifully, with jokes and themes brought together from the entire film, that it is impossible not to smile, even if tears accompany it. Films depicting the Holocaust are sad because the viewer knows the events really took place; Life is Beautiful is made all the more sad because the viewer knows the precise details could never have truly happened.
Final Verdict: A wonderfully tied together and heart-warming film, (though at the same time a tragic story). Life is Beautiful cannot be considered a Holocaust film, but instead a fable of which the moral is, despite it all, exactly what the title states.