This past Wednesday our local megaplex had another questionable “classic” in its classic film series. While I can appreciate the many qualities of Back to the Future, a classic film it is not. In fact, I suggest that it hasn’t aged well at all and our collective understanding of movie and TV time travel (see: LOST) has greatly magnified the issues of time travel paradox. If Marty McFly changes every aspect of the home life he ever knew, the odds that his life would still lead him to the same exact moment where he time travelled back to 1955 are absolutely astronomical. But this is not an article about the problems with Back to the Future. This is about the magnificence of La Vita è Bella (Life is Beautiful), the 1998 Italian film we chose instead.
It’s hard to believe it’s been more than 15 years since Roberto Benigni burst onto the American cinescape like a howler monkey after a half dozen Four Lokos. 1998 marked a turning point for the Academy who finally pulled their heads out of the sand and realized that maybe there was more than just Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg worth recognizing. Titanic was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Or was it the iceberg that… hmmm… there’s gotta be a metaphor in there somewhere. Nonetheless, Life is Beautiful was part of ushering foreign language and smaller independent films into the spotlight. It was nominated for 7 Oscars including Best Picture, Director and Screenplay. Roberto Benigni won Best Actor and the film took home the prize for Best Foreign Language Film.
Now, more than 15 years later, Life is Beautiful has endured as one of the most tender, entertaining and bittersweet films of all time. Some have criticized Benigni for adding so much comedy to a story set during the holocaust including parts inside a concentration camp. But I don’t think that’s a fair indictment.
Sure, it doesn’t have the gravity of Schindler’s List or The Pianist but for me it has much more heart and personal emotional connection. Both of those films are outstanding for so many other reasons. But the trick Roberto Benigni and cowriter Vincenzo Cerami pull off is that Life is Beautiful isn’t actually about the holocaust. It’s about the love of a man for his wife (Nicoletta Braschi) and son (Giorgio Cantarini). It poses the question, “What wouldn’t a good man do to protect his family?” then sets the scene in the most horrific time in human history to answer it. It is truly genius.
Where Benigni really reels you in is in the setup during the first hour of the film. Guido meets Dora (Buongiorno Principessa!), he wins her over, they fall in love, marry and have an adorable son, Joshua. It’s positively delightful! (A phrase that has never appeared on the poster for any holocaust film… ever.) Guido is funny and charming. Passionate and daring. Clever and creative. But when Italian fascism eventually forces Guido and his family into a concentration camp you don’t doubt for a moment that his antics are not only genuine but necessary. Guido stops at nothing to shield Joshua from the horrors around him. It’s that deft use of comedy that makes Life is Beautiful so remarkable. It’s keenly crafted and very, very smart.
I think this is exactly why a film about a Jewish man and his family who get forced into a train and taken to a concentration camp where the worst inhumanities ever recorded occurred could possibly be called “Life is Beautiful.” That’s the essence of the story. That is what Guido tries to preserve for Joshua. Even in the darkest place in the most gruesome situation Guido refused to let life for Joshua be anything but beautiful.
On a practical note: Don’t let foreign language films scare you. Subtitles are your friend. You’ll get used to it. Whatever you do, forget about the English dubbed version. Watch this movie in Italian. You’ll smile. You’ll laugh. You’ll probably cry a little. I know I did (more than once but don’t tell anybody).