Life is Beautiful (1998)

D: Roberto Benigni
S: Roberto Benigni, Nicholetta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini

Curious comic drama from Italian humourist Roberto Benigni which is bizarrely partly set in a concentration camp during the latter days of World War II. For the most part, it is a bright romance (with a political undercurrent) dealing with irrepressibly upbeat Jewish waiter Benigni's attempts to woo schoolteacher Nicholetta Braschi in 1939. When he finally wins her from her wealthy fascist fiance the film moves forward some years to when they have a son, Giorgio Cantarini, who assists his father in their bookshop. The family are then imprisoned in a concentration camp and the remaining forty minutes or so deals with Benigni's attempt to shield his son from the horrors by pretending that the events which occur around them are part of an elaborate game. He explains to him that if they play it correctly (by hiding from guards, not crying for food, etc.), they will win a special prize.

Arguably tasteless, certainly controversial, the film is centred on the premise that life is what you make it. It focuses firmly on Benigni in the lead, who runs through a series of comic set pieces which emphasise his ability to make the everyday seem magical; manipulating a series of coincidences to impress Braschi, plunging headfirst into every situation with quick wits and a good heart, improvising wildly regardless of whom he is dealing with to frequently comic effect. Despite the many reviews observing that it is a film of two halves, there is continuity in his attitude. The only real change is in the setting.

Whether or not this appeals to you will depend to a large extent on how funny and likable you find Benigni. The film is no masterpiece, nor is it especially original or revealing. The decision to set the latter part of what amounts to a gentle fantasy in a concentration camp is certainly strange, but surprisingly it does not provide the film with quite the level of depth that might be expected (or even presumed). It is still basically a showcase for Benigni's talents. The film does raise larger issues by inference. It inevitably asks the viewer to question their attitude to the holocaust, and without doubt Benigni is conscious of the issues of race and class which spring naturally from the characters and situations he represents. His directorial decision to shift the focus from the expected dramatic conventions of a holocaust film onto comedy is reflected in his character's refusal to allow cruelty and harshness to affect his life (or his son's).

It must be said though that both on screen and off this is morally questionable. Despite a final voice over which talks of 'sacrifice', and the redemptive tone, there are too many unlikely happenstances and unconvincing contrivances. The film does not feel authentic, and never comes close to being believable. This brings the matter of moral honesty to the fore, because it is arguable that in presenting the holocaust as a setting for escapist fantasy without giving it a genuinely harsh edge (there is some sadness, eventually, but there is little terror or tragedy; even supporting characters who might have provided a sense of the world beyond the family seem easily pressed into the service of the characters' fantasies) that the escapism loses its potential dramatic edge.

There is a definite challenge in a film which arouses contradictory emotions. There is also a long comic tradition of social satire and using a chaotic comic element to draw attention to the hypocracies and structures of society. But Life is Beautiful remains almost entirely in a lighthearted mode, leaving any darkness to the imagination of the audience. It remains too close to a vehicle to genuinely tackle the subjects. In fact it doesn't tackle them. It depends on the audience understanding that there have been films in the past which have done so, and on their acceptance of the idea that Benigni may therefore assume it needs no further elaboration. This may be taking too much for granted, and runs the risk of seeming to be taking the easy way out.

On its own terms, the film is certainly very watchable (though that may be the problem). Benigni is energetic and holds the screen, backed by a more understated Braschi (and a most curious appearance by Horst Buchholz). It often works on a comic level, though it can be overbearing in its attempts to be bittersweet. There are many scenes which leave a haunting impression on the mind, and on the whole it succeeds in at least hypothesising about our capacity to address and interpret the world on any terms we please.

Yet it is difficult to wholeheartedly recommend Life is Beautiful. It is not necessarily all that it might have been, and perhaps thinks that it is. It has a place in representations of the holocaust, but it remains primarily a romantic fantasy film for those tuned in to Benigni's philosophy and sense of humour.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.