Text by John Smyth
Writer/ director Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful (La vita è bella) is a modern fairy tale, as touching and as relevant as the tales collected by the Brothers Grimm to entertain, enchant and, yes, to scare children over 150 years ago. Like many such tales (such as Snow White) this storyteller is not afraid to explore the dark side of humanity in order to highlight the power of good. And, in this century, what could be much darker than the concentration camps of World War 2, and the attempted extermination of entire peoples on the basis of alleged 'impurities'?
The film begins on a truly whimsical note, with two young men, Guido Orifice (Roberto Benigni) and Ferruccio Orefice (Sergio Bini Bustric) motoring through picturesque sun-drenched countryside on their way to an Italian city to join their uncle and work with him. The car breaks down, and while Ferruccio attempts repairs, Guido, a happy-go-lucky but intelligent sort, wanders to a nearby farm. There, a beautiful woman, Dora, (Nicoletta Braschi) falls out of a hayloft, into Guido's arms. He is immediately smitten, though she is merely amused by his antics as he tries to impress her.
When the two men reach the city, Guido's plan to open a bookstore are scuppered by the inadvertent (though comical) upset he causes to the local councillor whose permission is required. However, he meets Dora (a schoolteacher) several more times, though each time it is in most unexpected manner. He woos her, and she seems interested. Unfortunately, she is to be married to the same arrogant councillor whose wrath Guido has already incurred. However, in a grand and magical sequence, Guido finally wins the hand of his princess, the name he has given her from their first meeting.
The challenge of Benigni's work is that it binds two diametrically opposed subjects in a balanced and entertaining way. His tale of a 'love that was meant to be' is told engagingly and whimsically in the first part of the movie. The second part of the movie delves into horror and tragedy which test the limits and meaning of such love (indeed any love). The second half of the movie is set in a concentration camp, five years later. Guido, Dora (now his wife) and their son Joshua have been sent there along with their uncle, (Giustino Durano). Dora is separated from the others, and Guido tells Joshua that their imprisonment is really a game, and that the winner of the game will win a real tank (Joshua's unfulfilled birthday wish). Thus, the guards are all part of the game, and certain rules must be observed in order to gain enough points to win.
The first half of the movie, set in pre-war Italy, sets the tone for the events to follow by contrasting the evolving relationship between Guido and Dora, with the slow slide of Italy into the Nazis' Final Solution. When Guido is working as a waiter (and still trying to win Dora) , he encounters a school inspector who will visit her school. Guido turns up early, posing as the inspector, only to find out that the inspector was to deliver a race superiority lecture to the pupils. Guido invents a funny and satirical alternative. Of course, we, the audience, cannot fail to see the irony of a bunch of dark-eyed and sallow-skinned five year olds receiving a lecture on the superiority of the blue-eyed, blond Aryan nation. When the teachers in the school complain that mathematical problems such as "What is the total cost to the state if the cost of each lunatic is four crowns and each cripple five, and there are 20,000 in total" are being asked of the pupils, it is not because the questions are sinister and tasteless, but because the multiplication is too difficult for five year olds. The teachers rue that "it is not too hard for a German five year old." The second half of the movie focuses on the characters rather than the horror that confronts them. Guido is forced to work in the ironworks at the camp knowing that if he can no longer work, he will die. Even though he is weak and dreadfully tired after every day, he keeps a cheery face for Joshua so that the facade of the game never drops. This sometimes requires him to take extreme risks but Guido never hesitates. His love for his son is complete. In the same way, Dora had the option of evading the camp but chose to be with her family, albeit remotely. The central characters never allows their humanity to be overwhelmed by the events and the callous indifference shown to them by their captors. When Guido's uncle (Giustino Durano) is being led to the 'showers', a female guard stumbles and he helps her. He retains his dignity despite knowing his fate.
The movie has been criticised for trivialising the Holocaust; unfairly in my opinion. It is true that certain events in the movie are a little unrealistic. Perhaps Guido would not have escaped punishment for some of his antics in a real camp. But the appalling nature of the camps is never denied - merely pointed up in a subtle way. Joshua complains that he cannot find any of the other children competing for the prize. Guido tells him that they are better at hiding than Joshua, and only the child best at hiding will win. Guido knows the real reason for the lack of children is because they were all gassed once they arrived.
Guido meets an old friend in the camp - a Dr. Lessing (Horst Buchholz, reunited with Benigni from Faraway, So Close) whom Guido used to pit his wits against in games of riddles. Now Dr. Lessing decides who is fit to work and who must be sent to the 'showers' (fit to die, so to speak). Begnini's performance is central to the success of the movie, and his screen-time with his son Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini) is convincing and affectionate. Funnily enough, the weakest part of the story is why Dora and Guido get together (Braschi is Benigni's real-life wife). Yes, it is meant to be a tribute to the power of serendipity and fate. But, while we know that Guido is a good person, all we know of Dora is her beauty (which is a prerequisite for a princess in a fairy tale, I suppose), and that she hates her fiancée. Buchholz and Durano are also quietly effective as the doctor and the uncle respectively, using the slightest of expressions and gestures to convey a world of emotion and meaning.
Benigni's use of a concentration camp as a backdrop to his story is a brave and inspired move. Though comparisons with Spielberg's Schindler's List are understandable, Life is Beautiful is closer to Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator. Both Chaplin and Benigni use the plight of 'the common man' to underline the effects of fascism. However, Chaplin resorted to rather obvious sentimentality which he contrasted with a heavy-handed satirical protrayal of Hitler. Benigni does not need to put horns or tails on his 'bad guys'. Their events and deeds speak of their character loud and clear. (To be fair to Chaplin, he did not have the benefit of hindsight). At a time when similar atrocities are still taking place in an area only a few hours flight from most cities in Europe, it is also a timely reminder of the consequences of such madness. This is a truly adult fairly tale; triumphant, poignant, timeless and one which will linger long in the minds of those who see it, and creating memories that one will wish to revisit time and time again.