Lately, as the millennium approaches, we’ve seen more and more movies with high concepts, but I think this one deserves the crown. I mean, a concentration camp comedy, who would have thought! Yet, this ain’t as sick a film as it could have been. Actually, it’s a charming, involving feature that has been praised all over the world. After winning the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes as well as popularity awards in all three major Canadian film festivals (Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver), it is now being released in North America. This very special film was produced, written and directed buy its star, Italian comic Roberto Benigni. He plays a happy, good natured Jewish waiter who works in a big Italian hotel. And for many years, life is indeed beautiful. He keeps bumping into Dora, a charming school teacher. And for the first half, the movie seems to be nothing but a sweet romantic comedy. Benigni is an amazing performer with incredible charisma. With his goofy allure, you can’t help but smile at his burlesque antics to win his princess’ heart.
Yet, as time goes by, we see more and more signs that something’s wrong in late 30s Italy. Jews are discriminated, fascists run the country and children are taught about the superiority of the Aryan race. Uh-oh. Before you know it, Benigni, his wife and their young son are sent to a concentration camp. But Benigni won’t lose his sense of humor, and he sure ain’t gonna let his son realize the horror of their situation. Hence, he pretends that the whole thing’s just an elaborate contest to win an Army tank. The strength of the film is that it does achieve to show that life can be funny and beautiful, even when is death is everywhere. Or maybe Benigni wants to make the point that, at a time where evil and hatred reached incredible heights, human nature could still be strong.
Whatever his intentions were, he did make a wonderful movie that is heartwarming without softening the horrors of the last big war. We might laugh by moments, but the film remains gut wrenching. It’s very moving to watch this guy put all these efforts to save his son’s sanity, to make him smile through all this. As for the lighter first half, it makes the following events seem even more awful. If Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” was more hard-edged and powerful, it was still told from a German’s point of view, and if we understood the Jews’ pain, we didn’t relate much to them as people. In “Life is Beautiful” on the other hand, we feel like we know and care about Benigni and his family when they’re stripped away from their happiness. The film may remind you of that other widely popular Italian comedy, “Cinema Paradiso”, but I personally think that it’s even better. It surely deserves its place at the next Oscars, and not just as the Best Foreign Film.