Life Is Beautiful ★★★★

72/100

[originally written on my blog]

Still an audacious, pitch-black parable of denial, not the grotesquely sentimental ode to the human spirit that both partisans and detractors mistook it for; I stand by most of my epic defense of 13 years ago. But I have to admit now that Benigni seems unwilling to commit wholeheartedly to his conceit (which is almost certainly what won him multiple Oscars, so timid like a fox). Nicoletta Braschi's performance doesn't bother me as much as it apparently did at the time, but the decision to have Dora follow Guido and Giosué to the camp could scarcely be more misguided—that she's segregated from them only undermines Guido's fantasy, and every interlude involving communication between them stops the movie cold to no intelligible purpose apart from giving Braschi something to do in the second half. And then there's the German doctor, whose inevitable reappearance, though powerful in itself, writes a check that the final act not only can't cash but fails to even recognize as a conveyance for legal tender. It can't be coincidence that Guido's look of dawning horror, as he's offered not a means of escape or assistance but a pointless riddle, is immediately followed by the only visual evidence of mass murder in the entire film (stylized in a way that some found tasteless, but it's clearly intended to represent everything he's chosen to ignore prior to this moment)...and yet Guido neither snaps out of it and acknowledges the nightmare he's entered nor deliberately retreats into willful blindness. He just forges on as if those two scenes had never happened, with the finale precipitated only by the end of the war and impending liberation. These lapses aren't fatal, but they are damaging, especially given how susceptible to misinterpretation the film was in the first place. I'd perhaps be more forgiving had Benigni used his crossover success for good rather than (by all appearances; I've steered clear) unholy evil; as is, I can see his tailspin beginning right here.