Saturday, January 11, 2014

Life is Beautiful (1997)

Director: Roberto Benigni                                Writer: Vincenzo Cerami & Roberto Benigni
Film Score: Nicola Piovani                              Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli
Starring: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini and Marisa Paredes

I have been on record in voicing my distaste for the zany in comedy. I prefer my comedies dry and witty. Good writing appeals to me, not slapstick. The first half of the Italian film Life is Beautiful (La vita é bella), therefore, left me cold. Roberto Benigni’s happy go lucky Guido was just a little too wacky for me, acting crazy and having more fun than a normal human should be allowed. But, of course, that’s the point. Benigni also wrote and directed which, in my mind, just adds to the general weakness of the film. His pursuit of the lovely Nicoletta Braschi is also clichéd and at the same time not very realistic. But then the Nazi’s come to town and everything changes. What before was simply zany antics suddenly becomes an absolute necessity for survival of a young family facing the Holocaust together.

For me, the film doesn’t really start until the story jumps from 1939, and Benigni’s pursuit of Braschi, to four years later after they are already married and have a young son, Giorgio Cantarini. The boy is marvelous, natural without seeming coached. When they see a store with a sign reading “No Jews or dogs allowed,” Benigni makes up a wonderful story to account for it to the child. At no time does he allow despair to enter into his son’s world. When he and the boy are taken away by the Nazis to the train station, Braschi is so committed to them that she goes to the train station and asks to get on the train to be taken to her death, as long as she gets to spend her remaining time with the people she loves. It’s at once heart wrenching and inspiring. And when Benigni pretends to translate the German instructions to the new arrivals, I laughed out loud, something that would seem impossible for a Holocaust film.

In fact, the film was so well received that it won three Academy Awards, one for best foreign film and the second for best film score. The film received seven nominations altogether, three alone for all of Benigni’s efforts and the third win overall for his performance as an actor in a leading role, one of only a few times that award has gone to a non-English speaking actor. It’s an extremely idiosyncratic piece of work, and while Benigni seems the least likely actor to win an Oscar, within the context of this particular story it’s easy to see why. In many ways it seems like this film was rewarded more for the story itself rather than the artistic merits of the film itself. The score is good, but with films like Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love in the running that year it certainly isn’t memorable. Life is Beautiful is not one of the all time great films, but the second half is certainly moving and worth the price of admission alone. Definitely recommended, if for nothing else than the experience.

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