Foreign Film Review Spotlight: 1997's La Vite e Bella, or Life is Beautiful
Roberto Benigni's Masterpiece
In 1997, Roberto Benigni, Italian comedian and film star, did something many actors do. He made the transitions to writing and directing. What makes Roberto Benigni's transition so special is that it was only the second time in history, after Lawrence Olivier in Hamlet , that an actor directed himself to a Best Actor Oscar. The fact that Roberto Benigni's film also won the Oscars for Best Foreign Film and Best Music, The Cannes Jury Grand Prize and over 30 other international Film Awards means it might stand alone as one of the greatest personal achievements for any person in film for it's writer, director, and star, Roberto Benigni.
If you are not familiar with Roberto Benigni, he is well known in America for his role in "Down by Law" by Jim Jarmusch and his role as the lead in the comedy, "The Son of The Pink Panther". These roles show his comedic ability, his impeccable timing in performance, and his charisma, but they do not hint at the great heights Roberto would reach with his fictional story about a Jewish man in a concentration camp who attempts to protect his son from not only physical death, but the death of the soul that so many holocaust survivors had to endure.
A Word About Which Audio Version to Watch
One thing we as Americans tend to do when we watch foreign films is to dub them into English versions so that we can watch the film and not spend the entire time reading subtitles in order to understand the plot of the story. While I completely understand the reasoning behind this and recognize that in some cases dubbing a film into English is a necessary sacrifice to bring it to a larger audience, I feel that Life is Beautiful is a film that should be watched in the original Italian.
If this seems like too much effort, let me stress the fact that Roberto Benigni won the Best Actor Oscar for this role, the Academy never gives this award to a performance in a language other than English, but for this film they made an exception. If you do not see the film in the original Italian, you will never understand why the Academy gave Benigni the award. You will also never be able to believe Benigni's performance. This is the crux of the problem. Life is Beautiful is so fantastic that it has to be sold by the performance of the actors for it to be believed. It is a modern day fairy tale and at times it borderlines on completely unrealistic, yet, when Benigni is on screen delivering his manic performance and spilling all over himself with an idiot-savant grace that would make Will Rogers proud, something magical takes place. Simply put, Benigni's performance transcends language. If the Oscar isn't enough to convince you of this, his performance will be, but you must watch his performance, not an overdubbed performance that does no justice to Benigni's genius of timing, delivery, or charisma. The poor voice actor tried his best, but he was over matched from the first line of dialogue.
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Another Film about the Holocaust?
Love it or hate it, Life is Beautiful suffers from the genre in film we have smugly come to know as "Holocaust Films". This term in itself is perhaps misleading, though it is entirely accurate. For example, Life is Beautiful does not even concern itself with the oppressions of Jewish people. Certainly this is happening throughout the film from the signs appearing on stores and racial slurs being painted on horses to huge piles of corpses later in the film. The characters the film is about, however, do not concern themselves with these things. If ever there was a film about seeing things half-full, this is that film. This is not a silly sentiment either, do not misunderstand me. Benigni's character, Guido, is very aware of what is going on around him. It is, in fact, this awareness that leads him to do what he does for his son.
Make no mistake, this is a film about a family -- a father, a mother, and a child. The first half of the film is one of the most sweetly told romances I've seen in modern film. This romance blossoms into a marriage and a child. Truly, life is beautiful for Guido and his family. Of course, Guido is Jewish, and he lives in Italy in the 1930s, so the reality he faces as he tries to hold onto the beauty in life for his families sake is anything but beautiful.
Here lies the crux of the film. Its power lies in the character of Guido, in his power and passion as a father and a husband. The power of the film isn't in the horrible scenes of death and destruction. The power is in the decision the father makes to protect and take care of his family in the limited ways left available to him in the face of such death and destruction. The power in the film comes from its portrayal of the simple truth that it does not matter how much darkness there is in the world, it cannot extinguish the light inside of you if you do not let it. And, like light in darkness, that light inside of you is worth clinging onto for it can provide direction when it feels like there is none. It can provide purpose when purpose appears futile.
Guido is not a special man. He is not even that talented. Clever, yes; talented, no. He is just an average man who worked as a waiter and now owns a very small book store. This serves to reinforce the idea that what is special about Guido is not what makes him different from the rest of us, but what we have in common with him. It is the fact that Guido is so unremarkable that makes his courage so remarkable. It is this story that the film derives its lasting power from.
Is the Film's Portrayal of Concentration Camp Life Insensitive to the Reality of the Holocaust?
One major criticism leveled against the film, and it is one I have already touched on, is that it portrays a very soft version of life in a concentration camp. I want to respond to this charge with sensitivity. While it is true that Joshua, Guido's son, seems to live a charmed life in the Concentration Camp, and it is also true that Guido's performances in a few scenes in front of German guards may ring unrealistic, I want to point out that the point of the film is not to marginalize the suffering of Jewish people. In fact, the film, even in early scenes, makes no qualms about calling a spade a spade with its portrayal of the ubiquity of Eugenics in Italy at the time. It also shows a mass grave, multiple gas chamber scenes and mentions on several occasions that many characters, including children, die during the film.
At this point, in my mind, the film has accurately recorded many of the horrors of the holocaust. If, in a few scenes, a performance is magical in quality and does not convince every audience member who watches it of its believability, this is a valid charge to level at the filmmakers, or in this case, Benigni. I do not, however, believe that Benigni's crime is slighting a culture he went to great lengths to be honest about in his film. I believe, rather, that Benigni is a flawed human being and that some of his scenes just weren't convincing to everyone. As the saying goes, you can fool some people all of the time, and you can fool all people some of the time, but you can't fool all the people all the time. Acting and film is an elaborate game of "fooled ya!" and it's fair to say that Benigni's aim missed the mark in a few scenes. This, however, is a far different charge than to say that his missing the mark is indicative of a disrespectful attitude towards the holocaust and the tragedy it represents for many innocent human beings.
When I read a critic or viewer making these charges, I often want to remind them that, in the game of criticism, it easy to find support for whatever you are looking for. Judging the film from this perspective, in my opinion, says more about these individuals making these judgments than it does Benigni or his film. The fact that several Jewish societies honored Benigni for the film should reinforce the idea that this film is, in fact, not an attempt to diminish the horror of the Holocaust.
The Lasting Effect of La Vita e Bella
Looking back on the film now, more than a dozen years later, I am still struck by the strength of Benigni's performance and the subtle way the film makes its points. For example, in an early scene in the film, Guido learns that an inspector will be visiting the school the woman he has a crush on works at. In a moment of romantic inspired foolishness, he steals the inspectors uniform and goes to the school to impersonate him so that he might see the girl he has set his heart upon again. While at the school, however, Guido learns that he is supposed to give a speech about the superiority of the Italian race over Jews and what they consider other "lesser races" to the children. Guido, recognizing that he is summoned to give a racist speech he does not agree with, gives one of the most spectacular performances in the film.
When confronted with a claim as ludicrous as the one that one man is better than another, he used satire to point out the lunacy. Rather than not give the speech, he gives the speech, and as he does it, he strips to make his point. He tells the children that if they weren't aware, Italians have the finest belly buttons of any race. To prove his point, he shows him his belly button. He goes on to talk about many other parts of his body as the finest examples of them in the world. As he shows his awkward and skinny body to the children, he asks "Have you ever seen ears like these?" The genius of his satire not only steals the heart of the woman he loves and brings the children to the floor in laughter, but caught a lump in my throat. I know it is a film, but the courage to stand up and tell the truth about something that everyone else around you is lying about, and to tell it with such style, passion, and authority that there is no way that truth can be silenced, that is inspiring.
This is only one scene in this film that makes me want to be a better person, a better man, a better brother, husband, and father. There are many throughout. There is only one phrase to sum up the way this film makes you feel, "Life is Beautiful". It is a bold and courageous statement that asks we be the best we can be in the worst of times that says this beauty is often because of, not despite the horrible ways we treat one another. Until we all know implicitly that life is beautiful and that it is our obligation to our children to teach them this fact first and foremost, we will need films like Benigni's masterpiece to remind us of the good we are capable of, and to challenge us to ask of ourselves to live in such a way as to make that good a reality.
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