Number 30 on the top 1000 films of all time is Roberto Benigni’s 1997 ‘Life is Beautiful.’
Set in Italy in the 30’s during, the rise of Fascism and Nazi Germany, ‘Life is Beautiful’ follows Guido Orefice. Guido is a blundering, clumsy, hapless, yet charming, optimistic, imaginative and very happy young Italian-Jewish man. He is also deeply loyal to his family and his community. This loyalty is put to the test, when he and his family are sent to a concentration camp and put to menial labour.
One reason why this film worked so well is that Guido was such a likeable character. His incessant clumsiness shows him to be an imperfect and therefore relatable character and how much he loves his family makes him very likeable. This love for his family is truly put to the test when he, his young son Joshua and his wife Dora are sent to a concentration camp.
Guido and Joshua are separated from Dora and in some of the most touching moments of the film, Guido works very hard to protect his son from the harsh truth of the concentration camp. Guido tells Joshua that the whole thing is just a game with three rules: no crying, no calling for your mother and no asking for food. If you receive a 1000 points you win the game and get the prize of a tank. Guido endeavours hard to keep this charade up for the duration of his and Joshua’s imprisonment.
Guido’s dedication to his son was emotionally poignant and was a great strength of the film. Roberto Benigni who not only directed and wrote the film, but also starred as Guido, deserves some credit too. He plays the character well, not only in engaging in some great physical comedy, but also playing some of the more emotional parts very well. I also really liked how the film was very subtle and implicit in its depiction of anti-semitism and anti-aryanism: from a few passing comments of people discussing the benefits of exterminating disabled people to Jewish people being banned from book shops, the film remains very understated and is not vulgarly explicit about its portrayal of the Holocaust.
The concentration camp was realised very well from the squalid conditions the prisoners were kept in to the labourious labour they were expected to complete. I also really liked how some of the prisoners, if quite passively, played along with Guido’s charade to protect his son from the truth. I also enjoyed how the film had a happy ending of sorts. Guido and Joshua’s camp is liberated and even though Guido dies in the liberation, Joshua is rescued by American soldiers in a tank. He is then taken to be reunited with his mother. This was a very touching and heart-warming note to end the film on.
I do think that at times, Guido’s clumsiness and brashness is very over done and not entirely realistic. He wins the love of his wife Dora by riding into her engagement dinner on a horse and then stealing away from under the nose of her fiancee. What happens to the fiancee? Did he ever try to get Dora back or confront Guido? We don’t know, as the film doesn’t cover it.
Furthermore, I think the guards in the concentration camp were far unrealistically lenient with Guido. In efforts to console his son and keep his spirits up, Guido maintains that the concentration camp is just a game for Joshua to complete and win. Guido is constantly explaining and amending the rules for his son, and usually in relatively open sight of the guards.
For example, when Guido and the other prisoners are carrying heavy anvils, Joshua joins his father and Guido spends a good five minutes telling him off and to go run and hide. However, there is no mention of any guards seeing Guido and punishing him. Secondly, Guido and Joshua sneak into an officer’s quarters and use the intercom to tell Dora that they are still alive and well, but, yet again, they are not punished for it. Whilst downbeat and dark, I feel that it would have been realistic if the pair had been shot by the guards then and there.
I also didn’t like how Joshua and all of the elderly people were never put to work in the camp. Throughout the film, he is left in the dormitories, whilst everyone else does the work. This is explained, as since the children and elderly people will be gassed soon anyway, there is little point in making them work. I find this very unrealistic. I think that as long as you were capable of working, the Nazi’s would have made you work and they would have only killed you when you were no longer capable of working. They wouldn’t have made any exceptions regardless of age
Any film that engages with the Holocaust will always be emotionally powerful and this film was no exception. It was funny, sweet, charming yet very brutal and horrifying. However, I can’t help to think that Guido and Joshua got away with far too much in the camp, considering that they were thought of as untouchable Jews.