Movie Project #39: Life is Beautiful [1997]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Life is Beautiful [1997]

Life is Beautiful [1997]
Director: Roberto Benigni
Writers: Vincenzo Cerami (story), Roberto Benigni (story)
Country: Italy
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Romance
Starring: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini
Running Time: 116 minutes

Life is Beautiful is a brave film in many ways. It starts off as a comedy about a man, Guido (Robert Benigni), who is so desperately trying to win the love of a beautiful school teacher, Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni’s real-life wife). He drums up a series of “coincidences” that leads him to falling off his bike into her arms, and he even infiltrates her school just to see her by posing as an Italian fascist inspector. His big speech to the students praises the superiority of the Italian race and their perfect earlobes and navels, all in jest, of course.

To Guido, everything is a joke. His sense of humor and comedic timing are what gets him through an increasingly hostile Italy in 1939. See, Guido is a Jewish man, and he is becoming a more and more frequent target of hate by the locals. His uncle, Eliseo (Giustino Durano), is already dealing with the newfound animosity, as his storefront is wrecked by some fascist vandals.

Yet Guido perseveres, putting on a smiling front and taking it all in stride. Eventually, he gets his girl (in the most epic fashion, riding a white horse spray painted in racial epithets), and things seem to be looking up.

Life is Beautiful [1997]

Fast forward five years later. Guido and Dora are now married with a young child, Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini). They own a book store, and despite a crude sign announcing the owner is a Jew, they make the best of it. That is until the Nazis come into town, rounding up every Jew in the area, Guido and young Joshua included. Dora, after learning of their seizure, runs to the local train station, demanding to be brought on board with them. After some deliberation, she is allowed to board the packed train, which has the most horrific destination imaginable: a concentration camp.

Guido, bless his heart, continues to try to make the best of the situation. He spins this trip into a game for his young son, telling him that he will get a tank if he wins the game. Surely Guido knows the chances of this ending well are slim, but his outgoing demeanor tries to cheer up the spirits of those around him, especially his son.

Life is Beautiful [1997]

Now, this is where the film grows bold in its delivery, and it has received a great deal of criticism for its approach. Guido is constantly cracking jokes (“Buttons and soap out of people? That’ll be the day!”) about a very sensitive and very real atrocity. Sometimes his attempts to be funny are just flat out obnoxious and inconsiderate, such as when he pretends to speak German just so he can jokingly translate orders from a Nazi officer. I get that Guido (and Benigni himself) is just trying to make the best of a horrible situation, but he really should know his limits.

Still, even with these potentially inappropriate moments, there is a great story underneath it all. This is a tale of the strength of a family, and the bond of love between father and son, and husband and wife. This is about a man who can find the beauty in life, even in the most dire situations. While Benigni can overstep the line past obnoxiousness, his Chaplin-esque antics are visually appealing. There is a certain type of charm to his character, and we could all learn something from his optimistic views.


24 thoughts on “Movie Project #39: Life is Beautiful [1997]

  1. Dan Heaton says:

    Eric, I’m really interested to see how this would play for me now. I saw it in the theaters and remember enjoying it, but I’ve been hesitant to go back. I wonder if hearing so much flack about it and watching films a bit differently would impact it.

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      Hi Dan, I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes I am hesitant to watch some of my old favorites simply because I have a much more critical eye now. For Life is Beautiful, I think it holds up well, but I can definitely understand where much of the criticism comes from.

  2. jjames36 says:

    Good review. And I remember having the same sorts of reactions when this was first released. It is very risky, but coming so closely on the heels of Shindler’s List, I think it was probably the right way for Benigni to tell this story.

  3. The Heretic says:

    I remember that dude from the Pinocchio film he did. I’ll have to check this one out.

    For the voting I went with The Punisher and Thor. The Punisher was just awesome, especially how much better it was compared to the Dolph Lundgren version.

  4. noisynoodle says:

    I have always enjoyed watching and laughing at Benigni in films but the reason I love this film is because it has a real heart. It is totally unexpected in it’s approach and by the end of the film if your not in tears you are a Tinman!

  5. The Blog of Big Ideas says:

    I can’t say I fully agree with your review. You see, I feel very strongly about this film as it’s definitely among my top ten of all-time.
    Before I go any further I will say that this is an Italian film. The jokes, the mannerism, the endless charm and the picturesque way of looking at life are all clearly Italian in nature and are perhaps more tuned to an Italian audience (to which this film was obviously intended) or to someone of Italian descent (like myself). It would be too presumptuous for Benigni to think this film would take him to the Oscars and introduce him to the world audience like it did.

    Perhaps I am biased due to my Italian leanings, but what Benigni did with Life is Beautiful I find it to be remarkable, and beyond anything else he’s ever done in his career as the chameleonic artist that he is (recognized in Italy as a writer, poet, director, comedian and actor). In this film he takes the most horrid of all events in modern civilization and turns it into an incredibly uplifting and inspiring film about making the best out of every situation.
    In my opinion, Life is Beautiful is also one of the truest representations of pure love I’ve ever seen on film.
    I connect to it a bit more nowadays as a son who lost his father much too quickly, and appreciates just how much work and time he dedicated to me so that my life would be easier and less troublesome.
    It takes a great deal of love and a genial mind to come up with ways to turn every little diabolical move of the Nazis in a concentration camp into a believable game for a boy. Benigni does cross the line of good taste with Guido, but he does it to emphasize the sacrifices a father had to make for his son. Sure, his comedy is crass in a few instances, but his objective is nothing more than to drive the point of the film forward.
    In any case, I am happy you finally got to see Life is Beautiful Eric. We certainly can’t expect to agree on everything and this comment has been long enough.

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      Hey Niels, thanks so much for the thoughtful comment. It’s great that you were able to connect with this film on such a personal level, and I appreciate your insight on the Italian perspective as well. I really liked a lot of what Benigni did with this film, even if some of his behavior was borderline crude in my opinion. But I agree with you that the fact that he was able to craft this type of uplifting film in such an awful setting is truly remarkable. As I mentioned above, I haven’t seen anything quite like this.

  6. ckckred says:

    Nice review. Your state some of the feeling I have for Life is Beautiful. I found the movie to be kind of inappropriate for the subject matter. Still, it’s been far too long since I’ve last seen it so I probably owe it a rewatch.

  7. yj557 says:

    This is definitely one of my favorite movies. I like its approach of telling stories. It teaches me how to interpret obstacles happened in my life in another way and be positive.

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