When I first became rather obsessed with the cinema in 1997, my foreign film resume was very small. I was far from the movie buff I am today and, although I was frantically searching the video store for classics, still made it only to the generally major releases in the theater. Thank goodness I vowed to make sure to see all the nominees for the Best Picture Oscar in 1998, or I might not have experienced Roberto Benigni’s masterpiece Life is Beautiful on the big screen. The movie was the only one of the five nominees—Saving Private Ryan, Elizabeth, The Thin Red Line, Shakespeare in Love—that I had not yet seen and I immediately sought it out. Then, I fell in love with it.
Along with directing the film, Benigni also wrote the screenplay and stars as Guido Orefice, a man who has recently moved to Tuscany in hopes of opening a book store. Upon his arrival, he meets his Princepessa, a school teacher named Dora, played by Benigni’s real life wife Nicoletta Braschi. Guido and Dora continue to bump into each other, but Guido is crushed to learn that she is engaged to a town official whom he has recently made an enemy of. In a remarkable scene unmatched by any romantic comedy, Guido courts Dora through the city streets with the help of some “heavenly” events.
This brilliant scene is the result of a masterfully constructed screenplay by Benigni and co-writer Vincenzo Cerami. In the opening thirty minutes, the film sets up a gag with a key, a hat and a riddle that all unfolds majestically in the date scene.
Guido eventually wins Dora over and sweeps her off her feet at her engagement party onto a graffiti-covered horse. The horse provides the first clue as to the dramatic turn the film will take in its second half. The construction of the screenplay effectively separates the film into two halves, the first being a heart-warming romantic comedy and the second being a holocaust drama. The device pays off dividends in the film because the first half completely sets up the characters, allowing us to identify with them in the second half.
This second half opens after a brilliant cut that brings us five years later. Guido and Dora are now married with a young son named Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini). Their beautiful life is interrupted when Guido, Giosue and Uncle Eliseo (Giustino Durano) are taken to a German Concentration camp. Love for her family leads Dora—herself a gentile—to force her way onto the trucks herself. Once in the concentration camp, Guido must use all his wits to convince his son that the horrible event they are now a part of is simply a game.
My favorite movies are the ones that trigger some kind of emotional response, whether that response is laughter, tears, excitement or something else. The great movies are the ones that hit all of them and by that definition, Life is Beautiful is certainly a great movie. The movie covers the entire spectrum of emotions and it doesn’t just touch upon them, it completely encapsulates them. Of all the other films I have seen, I can only think of one—Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life—that has as high of highs and as low of lows as Life is Beautiful.
Every element of this film is terrific. Of course, Benigni gets most of the credit for his brilliant writing, direction and acting (for which he was awarded with the Best Actor Oscar) and deservedly so, but there are many others that deserve recognition. Nicola Piovani, for instance, for his beautiful musical score, perhaps the best score in the past ten years. The greatest moment of the score for me comes whenever Benigni utters that now famous line—one that has become a favorite in my family—“Buongiorno Principessa.” Every ecstatic shouting of that line is accompanied by a beautiful musical cue that leads into the film’s love theme. Like one of Pavlov’s dogs I have been perfectly conditioned to the point where just hearing that cue is enough to fill my movie-loving heart with joy.
Another major contributor to the film is the film’s cinematographer, Tonino Delli Colli. Amazingly, one of the categories this film was lacking an Oscar nomination was in the Cinematography category. Watching the film again, I have to wonder why it was not included. There are so many beautifully photographed scenes including the dancing at the engagement party, or the haunting scene in which Guido witnesses the human devastation created by the concentration camp.
Benigni idolized Charlie Chaplin and throughout his career he has drawn numerous comparisons to the legendary tramp. Much of his comedy is silent comedy, even though his mouth is moving a mile a minute at all times. Both Chaplin and Benigni have a wonderful talent for combining comedy with pathos. As Benigni says in a making-of featurette included on the film’s DVD, “sometimes only clowns can reach the summit of tragedy.” Chaplin and Benigni are certainly clowns and they both have managed to reach that summit. As a tribute to his idol, the number Benigni sports on his uniform is the same worn by Chaplin in The Great Dictator.
Roberto Benigni was the biggest star in Italian cinema when he decided to make a film about the holocaust. The film was an enormous risk, mixing comedy and the holocaust, and could have been a disaster, possibly ending Benigni’s career. Fortunately, the movie became a massive hit, winning awards all across the globe and becoming the highest grossing foreign language film in American cinema history, a record it held until Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon broke it in 2000. Ultimately the film received a total of seven Oscar nominations, again a record until Crouching Tiger, and won three of them: Best Picture, Best Actor (Benigni) and Best Musical Score. All of these awards and records were cherished by Benigni—who will ever forget his memorable Oscar speeches—but perhaps the awards he cherished the most were those presented to him by the Jewish communities and the Holocaust survivors. The film’s use of comedy could have come across as a desecration, but it was so professionally handled that the film has received a miniscule amount of complaints. Five years after its release, the film still stands as one of the best movies ever made.
Life is Beautiful is a story of hope, family and survival. It is a movie that will forever hold a place in my heart. It is a classic, it gets and A+.