Life Is Beautiful ★★★★½

Winner of 3 Academy Awards, Life Is Beautiful sees a Jewish-Italian waiter, Guido Orefice (Roberto Benigni) meet Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), a schoolteacher, and wins her over with his charm and humor. Eventually they marry and have a son, Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini). However their happiness is abruptly halted when Guido and Giosue are separated from Dora and taken to a concentration camp. Determined to shelter his son from the horrors of his surroundings, Guido convinces Giosue that their time in the camp is merely a game.

Approaching a situation as horrific and bleak as the Holocaust with a more light hearted and comedic stance was always going to be a difficult, interesting and potentially dividing approach to the material if not executed correctly. However here that is not the case. The first half of the film is a very playful, charming comedy romance, as Guido finds himself in a myriad of increasingly risky, creative, slapstick and entertaining comedy situations situations as he tries to impress and win over Dora.

However after one swift scene transition the film immediately gains a looming shroud of worry and dread when the family are split apart in different areas of the concentration camp. Here is where the film is incredibly effective at garnering an emotional response and seeing just how difficult it is for Guido to shield the realities of the situation to his son, with the help of the other prisoners and some at times very tense risk taking. Throughout this half there are some very powerful moments both visually, with a truly haunting shot of the remains of the prisoners, crushing gut punch when Guido thinks he may have found a way out but it turns out to be very much the opposite and I would be lying if said the final scene didn’t make me shed a tear.

From a technical perspective the film is impressively crafted. Despite releasing in 1997 the film captures the feel and directorial style of a film that would have been made during the time or later in the 50’s & 60’s. The set design is very well crafted and there is some excellent cinematography throughout. The score also fits very well throughout, working for the upbeat and optimistic aspects as well as the dramatic and emotional moments.

Benigni (who also directs here) makes Guido one of the most likeable protagonists I have seen in a feature film. Witty, filled with optimism and dedication to his family, seeing him mask the pain and weight of the situation from his son in the concentration camp is a brilliant performance. Nicoletta Braschi is great as Dora, beginning as a calm and quiet and stuck in a relationship that she doesn’t want to be in, her gaining of confidence and happiness whenever she interacts with Guido shows their genuine chemistry and considering the heavy subject matter for a child actor, Canterini does a very good job at capturing the innocent bewilderment of Giosue at their situation. 

Life Is Beautiful is a thoroughly engaging, thought provoking, charming and at times powerful film. The performances are brilliant, the direction and cinematography is impressive throughout. Highly recommend.

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