La Vita é Bella (Life is Beautiful) is a lightweight drama. Directed by and starring one of Italy’s greatest living comics, it naturally contains some comic scenes. I mention these facts up-front because they become interesting once you know that half the film is set in a Nazi prison camp.
Mixing humor and concentration camps is audacious, and it has stirred a healthy amount of controversy. Some say that the very idea cheapens the memory of those who lost their lives. Frankly, it’s hard to argue with that point of view. If you can’t forgive a movie for attempting such a combination, you should skip it.
However, if you’re willing to be open, Benigni handles the mix very well. By focusing on the bond between father and son, and only drawing a sketchy picture of the horrible life of Jewish prisoners, Benigni moved and shrunk the target for criticism, and he allowed the small human story to bloom.
The movie begins like any other light romantic drama. It is Italy, before the war. Guido (Benigni) is a waiter with a penchant for riddles. He is in love with a woman whom he’s met only once. Through a series of coincidences (some of them arranged) he finally gets to know Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), the woman of his dreams.
Guido learns that Dora, a schoolteacher, is already promised to someone “better,” someone with more prestige and money than him. Nevertheless, he persists in pursuing her affections.
Guido’s charm is amazing. In one of the finest comic set pieces on film, several gags, which have been set up over about 20 minutes of screen time, are paid off, one by one, all to impress a beautiful girl. The effect marvelous, both for the audience and for Dora.
One evening at a party, the cheerful harmony of the film starts to shift. A horse of Guido’s uncle has been painted bright green with anti-Semitic slogans. A handful of partygoers, interested in the new German situation, talk casually about mathematical word problems involving money saved by executing cripples. Nevertheless, the film’s melody remains bright, for this is the night that Guido finally captures Dora’s heart, her soul, and her body.
The film cuts forward in time. Italy has changed drastically, especially for Italian Jews. Guido now has a son, to whom he teaches meekness in the face of repressive Italian authority. Meekness is life. The alternative is death. And as the title reminds us, life — any life — is beautiful.
Although he doesn’t deal with the mistreatment of Jews as a whole, Benigni shows how institutionalized racism affected a single ordinary man. On their way home one day Guido and his son Giosué (Girogio Cantarini) encounter a storefront sign that says “No Jews or Dogs.”
How would you explain this sign, not as a historian, but as a father to your son? How do you tell him what it means without blackening his heart? Guido not only answers his son’s questions, he does it in a way that removes them from the cruelty, and elevates them above their cold reality. In addition, it illustrates for the audience how childish the sign really is.
Needless to say, the sign was a sign of worse things to come. It isn’t long before Guido and his son are shipped off to a prison camp. Now instead of a single insulting sign, Guido has a whole world, an entire reality, to explain away.
In this last half of the film, Guido tries desperately to come up with an elaborate explanation of their situation. They are not in a prison camp, they are playing an extended game. There are rules, opponents, and points earned for bravery and for not talking. If they can only earn 1,000 points, they will win a tank and get to go home.
The real heart of the movie is that Guido doesn’t see anything fun about his “game.” He loves his son so much that he will risk everything, not just to protect his body, but to protect his mind and soul as well. The task is overwhelming, and it seems doomed to failure, but Guido refuses to quit.
It is this indomitable struggle for some tiny shred of goodness and hope, in the face of an overwhelming evil, that makes this film so moving.
Benigni is great in the role of Guido. He knows that fighting the situation head-on is futile. All he can do is smirk at the absurdity of the Nazi ideology. But Benigni is careful never to laugh too hard, and he never pretends he can fight head-on as a prisoner. He plays the part with an ironic resignation that is perfect for this film.
This film has stirred resentment and disdain in some critics. That a light, often humorous drama is set in a Nazi prison camp are an unacceptable mix, they say. Others blame the director for deliberately using that combination to push buttons and pull strings.
While I wouldn’t argue with them — I don’t think I could say anything to change their minds — I do disagree. To the first objection I would say that Benigni has as much right to set a story in a prison camp as any other filmmaker. While his depiction wasn’t as grim or graphic as in other films, he still handled the setting with an appropriate gravity.
To the second objection, I would say: let your buttons be pushed and your strings be pulled. Why else do we go to movies if not to be moved?
Giving myself to the film, I was rewarded with one of the most moving and crushing films in years. Though I often cry at movies, I rarely lose control. Life is Beautiful, and its simple message that life — any life — is beautiful, nearly succeeded.