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|Life is Beautiful
For the first forty-five minutes or so of Life is Beautiful, the setting
is Italy in the late 1930's. For Italian Jew Guido Orefice (Roberto
Benigni), a lovable and quick-witted goof, life is fun. Life is full of
pleasant surprises, romance and adventure. Life is beautiful. "X years
later," things take a severe turn for the worse. Orefice's surroundings
are no longer blissful, they are hostile. Signs on shop windows
indicate that Jews and dogs are not allowed inside, and graffiti marks
decorate the walls of Jewish shops. Life is not easy, but Orefice's
spirits are far from buried.
By the time Life is Beautiful reveals its dark core, Orefice is married
to Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), a Gentile, and they have a cute
five-year-old son named Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini). When World War II
is nearly over, this charming family of three is imprisoned in a German
concentration camp. Instead of revealing to his son the hopelessness of
their situation, Orefice pretends that they are involved in a harmless
game of hide and seek. Giosue must avoid the men "playing the really
mean guys," or else him and his dad might not become "the winners" of
the make believe competition.
The remarkable thing about Life is Beautiful is that whilst it is a holocaust movie, it is also a comedy, and a hilarious one at that. Benigni's character is introduced during a long set of slapstick comedy scenes, all of which resemble the work of Charlie Chaplain or even Mr. Bean. These are colorful and light-hearted moments that are - in their most basic form - exceptional comedic work. As we giggle, though, the film's tone is changing, and we can feel it. Benigni (also the director and co-writer) does not give his audience an easy way out by defining when the moment of emotional impact will occur. While we laugh, our stomach begins to churn.
That is why Life is Beautiful has become the victim of a widely conceived misguided criticism. Due to the film's comedic nature, it has been accused of ridiculing the Holocaust. Never since critics dubbed In the Company of Men as being just about men being cruel to woman has such a ludicrous allegation occurred. Strange as it may sound, but Life is Beautiful would have actually been less powerful had it not had its many moments of joy. If it had just focused on the concentration camp, we would not have had a period of time to compare it with. Films like Saving Private Ryan delve straight into the war itself, whereas Life is Beautiful makes sure we know what kind of life its characters are missing out on.
Roberto Benigni's performance as the extravagant Orefice seems at first simplistic and one-dimensional. But as the story moves along, an interesting development occurs: Benigni simultaneously becomes the films comedic character and its tool to evoke emotion. Benigni shows unusual talent for displaying a man who hides his fear and hatred, for the sake of comforting his son. Just dubbing this accomplishment as one of the year's best performances probably doesn't give him justice; this is one of the most unique acts you'll ever see.
If there is a definite fault in Life is Beautiful, it would lie in its script and the way Benigni handles it. On occasions, Benigni seems unsure of where he wants to go, so he ponders more than he pursues. That's fair enough when you imagine all the choices he would have had to make - when to develop the "serious" side of his tale, when to tickle the funny bone - but overall his direction is unmistakably brilliant. So too, is this film.
Despite its depressing overture, Life is Beautiful is a beautiful experience. Roberto Benigni doesn't just mix drama and comedy; he often hides drama in the comedy. In that way, we cry while we laugh, whilst we celebrate a powerful and mesmerizing film achievement.
|Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giustino Durano, Sergio Bini
Bustric, Marisa Paredes, Horst Buchholz, Giorgio Cantarini|
Review © copyright Luke Buckmaster
Australian theatrical release: December 26
|Just the facts:
Title: Life is Beautiful (1998)
|The Players: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giustino Durano, Sergio Bini Bustric, Marisa Paredes, Horst Buchholz, Giorgio Cantarini||Official website|
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Published in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
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Published in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia copyright © Festivale 1999 All rights reserved
Filed: 1-Jan-1998 Last updated: Last tested: 3-Jul-2014 Last compiled: 3-Jul-2014