Justin Peterson’s review published on Letterboxd:
(Foreign language film/English dub available)
An extremely optimistic father works desperately to preserve his son's innocence, by shielding him from the horrors of the Holocaust.
"You are such a good boy. You sleep now. Dream sweet dreams. Maybe we are both dreaming. Maybe this is all a dream, and in the morning, Mommy will wake us up...."
After watching Life Is Beautiful, I checked out Director/Leading Actor Roberto Benigni accepting two of the Oscars the film won including for his role for Best Actor, and Best Foreign Language film. And his upbeat personality is every bit as infectious in real life as it was in the film. But I would be lying if I did not admit that his overwhelming positivity did start to get slightly obnoxious after a while, during the first half of the film. On the other hand, I think establishing this fantastical persona so firmly in the first half is ultimately what makes the second half be some what believable, when his character Guido's life gets turned upside down when his family is taken to a concentration camp.
I recall hearing complaints about this movie, and it is true if you are not able to simply go with this unrealistic representation of life within a concentration camp, that you will likely struggle to enjoy this movie. From my perspective, Benigni was not trying to make light of the atrocities of the Holocaust, but rather present this theme about how you can always try to look on the bright side of life, even during the darkest of times.
As a parent, I really connected with what Guido was doing to prevent his kid from being forced to grow up as a result of their terrible situation. Does it go a bit too far when he acts like a clown around the Nazis by marching funny, or hanging from a light pole while the searchlight is looking for him? Maybe, but at the same time that exaggeration is exactly the behavior that would help keep a child in good spirits while they are starving and being yelled at. It was a touching moment when the mother decides that she must join her husband and child on the train, but I wish they would have kept up with her more at the camp, despite her being separated by being housed with all of the women.
I did not realize just how much this movie had pulled me in until I got a chill after we hear that the rest of the children and elderly people had been sent to the gas chamber. Also, that very eerie shot when Guido is confronted by this enormous mound of bodies that is somewhat shaded by a blue haze. Then it is heartbreaking to see how all his running around to protect his son, is ultimately what gets him killed. But then our emotions are picked right back up when the son is helped by a soldier in a tank who helps get him to his mother.
The script does a good job of slowly making us aware of the impending tragedy as we see people in this Italian village talk about racial purity, and the increasing anti-semitic elements become more apparent with business saying they will no longer allow Jews to enter. And wow was that a big transition, when Guido finally gets the girl and they walk into that house, and then it jumps forward all the way in time to their child being a few years old coming out of the house.
"If you speak my name, I vanish. What am I? .... Silence."
It just dawned on me how significant the Silence riddle was for the German officer that is friends with Guido. He acknowledges how much he likes Guido as a person and respects his work. But in the end, he basically remains silent and does nothing to really help at the camp, other than to speak some gibberish about rabbits. And that is a very strong theme with how social injustices like this are only able to occur, when good people don't break their silence if they witness something immoral.
I am so glad I finally checked out this classic from the late 90s. And I definitely think it will be one I revisit when my kids begin learning about WW2 in school, to help reinforce their education about this unfortunate period of history in a less harsh way. Compared to some of the films I will show them when they get older, that take a more realistic approach toward the subject.
On a Technical Note: While I enjoyed watching the English dub of this film, I would say the quality of the dubbing was mediocre, and was noticeable at times throughout.
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Happy Movie watching ... Cheers!