Rated PG-13 - Running time: 1:54 - Released 10/98

Most movies attempt to fulfill the simple goal of providing the audience with a few hours of entertainment. This is a perfectly adequate objective. But occasionally there is a film that reaches farther; that plumbs the depths of the human soul and shows us what we are capable of, both good and bad. La Vita è Bella, a masterful interweaving of comedy and tragedy which reminds us of this duality in life, is such a film.

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 are married.

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

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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