Life is Beautiful ("La Vita E Bella")
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By Jordan Rockwell
I walked into this film knowing that it had swept everyone who had seen it off their feet. I knew it would happen to me to. Sure enough, it did.
Roberto Benigni is Guido, a goofy Italian peasant who comes to Tuscany in 1939 with dreams of opening a bookstore. Upon his arrival, he falls head over heels in love with Dora, a beautiful young teacher who is unhappily engaged to be married to the Fascist town clerk. Using his wit and insatiable humor, Guido wins her heart.
Five years later, Guido and Dora are married and have a young son, Giosu. What is gradually revealed is that Guido is Jewish, and once the Axis Powers start losing the war, they ship all remaining Jews to concentration camps, including Guido and Giosu. Dora, a Gentile, would be spared by the Nazis, but follows them to the camps out of love and her own free will.
It is during the film's second half that Life is Beautiful truly shines. You may have heard that this is a Holocaust comedy, but Springtime for Hitler this is not. To shield his son from the horrors of the Nazis, Guido uses the only weapon he can; comedy. Guido tells his son that it's all a big game, and if Giosu can hide when Guido tells him to, he'll win a tank.
How writer/director/star Benigni pulls this off, I have no idea. He somehow finds a way to tastefully show the Holocaust for what it was (in a light-hearted tone) without trivializing it. Unlike Steven Spielberg's equally brilliant Schindler's List, which showed us everything in gory detail, Benigni chooses to hide from us the details, but never the reality. He even shows us the reaction of a female Nazi guard who has just assisted the gassing of 100 camp inmates. Even Nazis have humanity sometimes.
But what Life is Beautiful is really about is how a father's love for his wife and child was so neverending that he would do anything for them, even laugh through his tears. Even ignore his own pain. Even ignore death at every step.
Life is Beautiful is funny and tragic, touching and romantic, unpredictable and rewarding, and always brilliant. It is a beautiful love story and a wonderful tale of a father's love for his wife and son. It is also the best film of the year.