LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (LA VITA E BELLA)
We've become familiar of late with Italian actor/writer/director Roberto
Benigni, watching his enthusiastic, barely intelligible speeches at the
awards ceremonies where he has been honored. As well as starring him, La
Vita è Bella was written and directed by Benigni (co-written
by Vincenzo Cerami), based partly on his father's stories of life at Bergen-Belsen
concentration camp during World War II. We have seen other great films dealing
with this subject, such as Sophie's Choice and Schindler's List,
but Benigni's decision to introduce comedy to the subject is different.
It is risky; one is in danger of making a Hogan's Heroes-style mockery
of such a tragedy, and there are traces of this problem evident in this
film. But mostly it is a masterpiece.
La Vita è Bella is presented in two acts. The first half
is funny and lighthearted, reminiscent of an early Bob Hope film. Benigni
plays Guido Orefice, a poor but friendly Jewish man in 1930s Italy. He and
his brother Ferruccio (Sergio Bini Bustric) move to a small city and Guido
gets a job as a waiter in a fancy restaurant. With his wit, charm, and a
propensity for quick thinking, he makes many friends despite the growing
anti-Semitic feeling of the time under Mussolini's fascist regime. He repeatedly
runs into (and I mean that literally) an attractive young woman named Dora
(Nicoletta Braschi) who teaches at the local elementary school. Dora is
not Jewish, and she is engaged to an important man in the town, but she
is unhappy with the arrangement and finally Guido wins her heart and they
Act two begins several years after Guido and Dora are married. He now
owns a small bookstore in town and they have a young son named Giosué
(translated as "Joshua" in the subtitles). Though the fascist
grip is tightening, Guido manages fairly well and Giosué (Giorgio
Cantarini) often helps out at the store. Then one day Dora comes home to
find that Guido and Giosué have been taken away. She goes to the
local train station where Jews are being loaded into cattle cars, and decides
to go along rather than be separated from her family.
From this point, as can be expected, the film takes a decidedly morose
turn, but this is where Benigni's genius comes into play. In order to protect
his son from the horror of the situation, Guido makes up a fantastic story
that they are involved in some sort of complex game, that the Nazis are
the other team, and following certain rules (like staying hidden and never
talking) will allow them to rack up points. Meanwhile, he makes every effort
to communicate with his beloved wife, whom he knows is imprisoned elsewhere
in the camp.
As has been seen in the awards ceremonies, Benigni seems to have unlimited
energy. His buoyant delivery is reminiscent of Chaplin, and the love that
makes him deceive his boy is evident, as is his love for Dora, played elegantly
by Braschi (Benigni's real-life wife). Adding to the bittersweet charm of
this film is the music, featuring Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann,"
with additional original music by Nicola Piovani.
The choices we make, the crimes we commit, the depth of love we feel. All are represented with energy and passion in this excellent film. All are masterfully conceived and touchingly portrayed to represent Benigni's statement about the complex beauty of life and the elegant symmetry of its joys and hardships. ****½
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