The Greatest films of all time: 82. Life is Beautiful (1997) (Italy)


Roberto Benigni, an Italian comedy actor and filmmaker with his “Life is Beautiful” in 1997 that was released almost a year later than Italy in US, proved to be a genius like his master Charlie Chaplin. Naturally a born comedian in his masterpiece, he uses humor and irony to tell a story of love, sacrifice and inhumanity of Nazis in the World war II to enlighten his own nation whose fascist government of Mussolini was on the devil axis and a partner in the big crime. Despite the universal accolade of the film by critics and the public worldwide, there were a few who did not understand the film and its impact on the Italian mentality then and later in recognition of the atrocities of the fascists and Nazis on Jews even in their native country, ending in over 7,000 loss of lives.


In fact Benigni was smart to consult, from the start of the film and even writing the script, with the Jewish-Italian historian and scholar, Marcello Pezzetti who had travelled over 250 times to Auschwitz and interviewed hundreds of holocaust survivors over the years. He even attended with Pezzetti a full-immersion holocaust history course to acquire more knowledge of the most tragic inhumanity incident of our modern time. Benigni had also one of the real holocaust survivor, Rubino Romeo Salmoni whose memoir “In the End, I Beat Hitler” was a main inspiration for the film, on the set as another consultant. As in the film that Guido (Roberto Benigni) who sacrifices his own life for the survival of his young son Giosue or Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini), Benigni preferred that ending opposed to the death of his son per Pezzetti’s suggestion.


Life is or was Beautiful:

While half of the film is a love story with an uninterrupted comic moments created solely by Benigni himself who like Chaplin not just acted, but directed and co-wrote the script, is a beautiful funny story of love, the second half is tragic, with still ongoing comic moments for the survival in the concentration camp. So the beautiful life of two lovers that produced a beautiful boy before the Nazis occupation of Italy after the country surrender to the allies in 1943, is lost to the racial discrimination and ends in a concentration camp. For the survival of the spirit and life of his little son, Guido continues with his magical and fantasy story making to convince him believing the camp is a contest for the hardest working participant (his father) to collect one thousand points to win a tank. At the end Guiod sacrifices his own life to rescue his son, hiding him in a safe outside to just come out the next morning when all are gone to see his prize tank.

Arriving with his friend to the small town of Arezzo in Tuscany to work in his uncle’s restaurant until he applies for a permit to open a bookstore, Guido runs into Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni’s real wife) whom he falls in love right away. With constant comic actions and well written and acted script mostly by one man, Benigni as Guido, he runs a few more times accidentally to Dora whom he calls her princess. Meanwhile he waits a German doctor who’s obsessed with riddles and soon interested in Guido who solves his riddles easily and gave him hard ones to solve. He also serves lunch once to an inspector who’s visiting the school where Dora teaches, so he takes the opportunity to pretend to be the inspector, arriving to the school wearing an Italian flag. In one of the funniest scenes of the film, when he is asked to lecture about the superiority of the Italian race to the young students, he jumps on a desk and shows himself and different parts of his body including his earlobes and belly buttons as the perfect examples of a superior race. Having all the scene improvised, Benigni makes the film a mockery of racism, in the manner Chaplin did in “The Great Dictator”.


Another funny but thoughtful moment of the film is Guido using Schopenhauer will power’s philosophy to influence Dora to fall in love with him by his hand movements as if to hypnotize her. Despite a few degrading criticism of labeling Benigni as a clown, addressing Schopenhauer’s philosophy of influence on others that impacted Nietzsche whose philosophy of “Will to Power” and “Ubermensch” or “Superman” was an influence on Hitler is an example of his genius in mockery of extreme ideologies that once and again have led to humans’ misery. Finally and at the end of the first happy half of the film, Guido when he works as a waiter in Dora’s engagement party to a rich local, he steals her on his uncle’s horse that is painted green and written on some anti-semitic remarks.

In the second half and before the evil of racist Nazis breaks the happy life of Guido who has married to Dora and a few years later have a the product of their love, the little Joshua, the film shows the three go to work on a single bike, and Joshua helps his father in his already open and running bookstore. Of other comic but critical remarks of the film of retelling the racial situation in Italy at the time of fascism is a sign on a store reading “No Jews and dogs are allowed ” that Joshua asks his father the meaning. Guido responds mockingly “I know a hardware store that bans entry to Spaniards and horses”! In contrary to a few negative criticism of the film to take the holocaust situation lightly and in comedy, “Life is Beautiful” is one of the few such films that shows the hard forced labor of the captives, their condition of living and extermination by sending them to the gas chambers as showers.

Moreover the film that addresses the Italian Jews condition needed to be told in comic tragedy by their own comedy star Benigni to believe of holocaust and the sufferings of the Italian Jews. As the Jewish historian Pezzetti explains, the film was more eye-opening for Italians than anywhere else in the world. It remind them of the anti-Semitic laws in the country to expel the Jewish students and teachers from the public schools and banning the Jews to hold positions in public administration and the confiscation of their business and real-state assets. The film becoming the highest grossing Italian film until 2001 was a sign of success for the film to reach its enlightening agenda.     


Knowing the inevitable end of their lives approaching, as Naziz close to the end of war and before their surrender, they were still executing the captive Jews and sending them to the gas chambers, Guido to save the life of his son hides him in a safe outside. Having him to promise not to leave until all are gone, and when he could come out to receive his tank prize, Guido sacrifices his own life and is executed. In the final scene in the morning after when all quiet, Joshua comes out of the safe and to his big surprise he sees a tank approaching him. An American soldier driving the tank calls him up for a ride. Riding on the tank, Joshua sees rows of captive Jews walking out of the camps on both sides of the road, when he locates his mother among the crowd and runs into her arms.      

Winning numerous awards as the best picture and performance all across the globe, including the best foreign language film, best original music score and the best acting in 1999 academy awards, Begnini’s reception of award for the best foreign language film is a memorable one, when walking on the chairs to get to the stage, and when receiving his second award as the best actor and the first non-American male to win it was so surprsing to all including himself who said “This is a  terrible mistake”. Beating Tom Hanks for his performance in “Saving Private Ryan”, Nick Nolte in “Affliction” and Edward Norton in “American History X”, Begnini could have also beat Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Robert Duval, Pert Fonda and Dustin Hoffman in performance competition if the film was released a year earlier at the 1998 academy awards. Also the winner of the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival, “Life is Beautiful” went on to win numerous other awards worldwide, such as Australian Film Institute awards, Cesar Awards, Critics Choice Awards, the Italian David di Donatello awards, European Film Awards, Toronto International Film Festival Awards and as a response to criticism about light presentation of holocaust, the Jerusalem Film Festival. The first foreign actor to win the best acting performance at the Oscar, Roberto Bengini also won many of the best acting awards at the above festivals and the British BAFTA Awards.    



In closing remarks “Life is Beautiful” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality: “Life is Beautiful” is original in being the first and only film addressing the holocaust sufferings and survival of Jews in comedy melodrama style that enlightened the worldwide audience specially in Italy more than any other alike films.
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “Life is Beautiful” is in its well calculated and sensitive but comedy melodrama and tragic script that was well directed and acted with one of the finest music score.
  3. Impact Factor: The influence of “Life is Beautiful” has been on cinema at large, another example and lesson that how a film could win both the hard to please critics and the audience the same, being a masterpiece of cinema and also a box office hit, to enlighten the minds while affect the hearts, making all to laugh and cry at the same time.
  4. Survival: “Life is Beautiful” has survived well to this very day in still being a subject of review, discussion, books and debate. It is still fresh as the year it was made.


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