Kyle Armstrong’s review published on Letterboxd:
It's well known that this is essentially two very different films tied together with a thin thread, but I think the real problem here isn't how they'e united, but the strength of the second half compared to the first.
The first third is a gorgeous, heartfelt, and near-flawless update of the Silent Comedies cross-pollinated with the the Screwball Comedies that would have been popular during the time period Life Is Beautiful is set. It takes a while to adapt to, even if you're familiar with the style being referenced, but once you're in, it's a hilarious rom-com with extremely poignant antifascist subtext.
The whole film loses a lot of magic after the 50 minutes mark, though. A lot of this has to do with the connective tissue. It's fine the way it is, but these pivotal transitional scenes feel rushed, as if they were afterthoughts; had this section been 15/20 minutes longer, I think it would've made for a stronger lead-in to the second half, as well as a stronger film overall.
The Achilles' Heel, though, is the half that garnered Life Is Beautiful all its acclaim in '97. Sure, I think the tightrope act of humor set in a concentration camp to ensure survival is well done, and there's a lot of chemistry and love on display in the father-son relationship, but the idea never evolves, and just continues to repeat itself for an hour. As a result, you might get the gist five minutes in, but then are left bored for the remaining 55 minutes. Every other character is pushed too far to the background, and their plotlines become meaningless. In some cases, it's tragically short, such as with the Uncle, or the absence of the Best Friend, but in other cases it's almost as if they wanted to lead into something bigger and just didn't have enough material, like with the doctor. This is especially a problem for Dora, who appears for maybe 5 minutes overall in this half, which is confusing. If their romance is so important in the first half, why isn't it emphasized more in the latter half? At the very least, we should have seen more of her experience, but we get almost nothing until the end.
The worst part about this second half, though, is the unclear tone. Guido is still comedic, even when he's not around his son, but the conflict would have been more palpable if he wasn't a comedian any more when he's alone. At the same time, from a technical aspect, Life Is Beautiful leans into the "Holocaust Film" subgenre, with swooning violins and elaborate haunting sets. While it wasn't as clear in '97 as it is today, it's hard to ignore that this half is the Oscar Bait half, and it not only feels tonally inconsistent, but tonally unnecessary, and highlights a bigger identity problem. Does Life Is Beautiful want to be a comedy about a tragedy, or a tragedy about a comedy? In the end, it seems to want to be both, but by being both, it becomes bipolar and frustrating.
That said, it's far from a wasted watch, and while the second half is cliché and only slightly above mediocre, the first half is truly a wonderful movie that's only slightly short of a masterpiece, had it not been so derivative of the silent era classics. If that had been the whole film, and it had been 90 minutes with stronger antifascist subtext, I think this would be an all-time favorite worthy of its acclaim. But the flaws present here are so frustrating, it becomes distracting, and any enjoyment the first half gave me has diminishing returns where I'm left wanting another film than what I actually got in the end.