Life Is Beautiful ★★★★½

Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, uses the backdrop of one of humanity's worst events to paint the perfect portrait of a father's love. Inspired by his own father's experiences in a German labor camp and the novel, In the End, I Beat Hitler, by Auschwitz survivor Rubino Romeo Salmonì, Benigni's story is a delicate, human fairy tale.

*Some general spoilers will follow.*

This is a film that wears its message on its sleeve, or, at least in its title. In spite of everything... life is beautiful. Life is precious. Life matters. Life, when compared to its alternative, is like a fairy tale. It is the opening act of the film which establishes the fairy tale love story. Almost Chaplinesque in his comedy and style, Benigni is in complete control here, giving one of the finest performances from a writer-director-star. His "Princepe," Guido Orefice, meets his "Principessa," Dora (Nicoletta Braschi). They fall in love, have a son--Giosuè (Giorgio Cantarini)--and are perfectly set up for their happily ever after.

Even in this idyllic fairy tale existence, though, Benigni carefully foreshadows the dark turn that lies ahead for the Orefice family: dinner conversations and classroom lectures about fascist politics, raids of Jewish homes, and acts of vandalism all show what lies just below the surface of our protagonists' perfect life. When Guido, an Italian Jew, ultimately finds himself sent to a concentration camp along with his wife and son, the only one who refuses to give up on his perfect, beautiful life is Guido. While our collective hearts break for him, Guido faces the horrors that await him with strength, positivity, and humor. And he does everything for the sake of his wife and son.

In order to keep Giosuè positive and focused on survival, Guido invents a "game" for the boy to play during their time in the camps. To "win" the game, Giosuè must accumulate "points" that are awarded for various good behaviors. This is Guido's method for ensuring Giosuè behaves himself, keeps a low profile, and doesn't attract the attention of the Nazi guards. It is here that the influence of Salmonì's novel is strongest; just like In the End, I Beat Hitler, Benigni uses dark comedy to depict the Holocaust as a competition.

Detractors of the film point to this element of the story and claim that with "the game" and the humor, Benigni makes light of the Holocaust; however, I feel that it is precisely the use of comedy here that heightens the emotional impact of the film. In the same way that Robert Bresson manages to pull heightened emotion from his viewers by using emotionless actors, Benigni is able to pull tension and pathos out of his audience through humor. This is done because the film essentially operates on two planes. In the first plane, we have Guido Orefice: Holocaust victim. This version of Guido experiences the Holocuast, learns of its horrors, and attempts to survive them. This is the general story of suffering shown in most Holocaust films. This type of Holocaust film has been shown before, and has been depicted better elsewhere than it is here, but Benigni has more than just this layer to his performance.

The second plane of the film focuses on Guido Orefice: father. In this role, Guido/Benigni must keep the game alive for Giosuè's sake. At great personal risk, he puts his own safety, fears, and emotions aside and plays the game for his son. This is an incredible piece of acting, since we know that Guido knows how bad his situation really is, yet we also know that he cannot let Giosuè see that reality. We watch as Benigni deftly switches roles from survivor to player and back again, sometimes from one line of dialogue to the next. Knowing that Guido is denying himself even the right to be afraid, one cannot help but be touched by the depth of his love. At no point in this story does Guido put himself first; he doesn't even put himself second, constantly taking personal risks for the sake of Giosuè and Dora.

Love. This is what Life Is Beautiful is all about, for with love, life is beautiful. It might take place during the Holocaust, but it is not a film about the Holocaust. It is a film about relationships, family, and sacrifice. It is a film unlike any other, and one that I return to regularly for the way it celebrates all that is beautiful about the human spirit. With a phenomenal lead performance from Roberto Benigni and a pitch-perfect ending, Life Is Beautiful is a masterpiece.

Matthew liked these reviews