Life Is Beautiful

Released in 1997 under the title La Vita e Bella and in the United States in 1998, Life Is Beautiful, directed, cowritten, and acted by Roberto Benigni, tells the story of Guido, a glib Chaplinesque half-Jewish waiter hired by his uncle who enjoys making up stories and engaging in comic antics soon after arriving in Arrezzo, mistaken for the King of Italy on tour, during 1939. Guido softens the heart of a Nazi spy, German Doctor Lessing (played by Horst Buchholz), by posing and solving riddles, and he infuriates the Fascist authorities of Mussolini but gets away with his fun. Although he dreams of opening a bookstore, his license is refused by the Fascist town clerk, one of many Nazi collaborators (reminding us of the 1971 film The Garden of the Finzi-Continis). Guido is also infatuated with Dora (played by Nicoletta Braschi), a schoolteacher who plans to marry the Fascist; but his joyful humor wins her over at the engagement party, and she elopes and marries him. In 1944, the Germans have taken over Italy. In 1945, Jews are arrested, including Guido, Dora (a Gentile who insists on going along), and Giosué (played by Giogrio Cantarini), their five-year-old son, and sent by train to Auschwitz. Indeed, Benigni’s father was sent to such a labor camp, and therein beings the seriousness of the film. Rather than resigning himself to the drudgery of work, Guido continues his antics. For Dora, he manages to broadcast over an unattended loudspeaker various announcements and Offenbach’s music, all without retribution from the capo, and she responds with all smiles. For Giosué, who might otherwise have been depressed or even exterminated, as were all children and older people unable to work, he dreams up a game of 1,000 points, telling Giosué that the outing is an elaborate birthday present. He tells Giosué that the game is difficult, but the winner gets a tank. Guido interprets every untoward event to Giosué as a gambit requiring a clever response in the quest to accumulate more points. The old and young are incinerated, and the able-bodied are forced to endure long, exhausting hours of work, but Guido does not allow Giosué to be distracted from the game by such events as the disappearance of fellow “gameplayers,” the inmates who have faced the wrath of the Nazis. In the end, Guido dies as the allies approach the prison because he was looking for Dora rather than following the kapo’s directions. However, Dora survives. Giosué, warned by Guido to hide until the prison is completely quite, finally comes out of hiding, a tank appears, and an American soldier invites Giosué to take a ride; his “prize” has arrived. Unfortunately, the Pollyanna story would have been quite impossible, even in the milder totalitarianism of Mussolini’s Italy, but the film tells us that we should look for a bright side to sad events. Harsh political realities usually challenge the less powerful to submit to authority, but clever people can always find a way to laugh. The tagline of the film is “an unforgettable fable that proves love, family and imagination conquer all.” Instead of criticizing the rather naïve political message of the film, which has infuriated the far left and the far right, we might recall At First Sight, the story of the blind man who was happy as a lark because he always found helpful people. Yes, the saintly people of the planet bring us joy despite adversities, and we can all be saints if we would just try. MH

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