“This is a simple story, but not an easy one to tell. Like a fable, there is sorrow. And, like a fable, it is full of wonder and happiness.”
Roberto Benigni has been somewhat of a staple in Italian cinema for nearly 40 years. He has a solid reputation not only as a talented actor but as a writer and director, as well. He has been known mostly for his comedy, and that’s exactly how many people see Life Is Beautiful. On first glance you might read the description and be somewhat skeptical about watching a comedy about the Jewish Concentration Camps during World War II. But Benigni manages to mix just the right amount of whimsical comedy into a very serious backdrop. It isn’t very easy, and I know of only a handful of cases where serious material has successfully translated into comedy. Hogan’s Heroes and M*A*S*H stand out as notable examples.
This is very much a case of two movies inside of one. The first half follows the story of young Guido (Benigni). He runs a small bookstore and falls in love with Dora (Braschi), a young teacher who is already promised to a wealthy socialite. But his charms and persistence finally prevail and he ends up marrying Dora and they have a child, Giosue (Cantarini). Their life is a simple but idyllic one until the German Nazi party begins to make inroads in Italy. Guido is Jewish and is suddenly taken to the concentration camp. Dora is not Jewish but insists on being taken as well. Unfortunately, she is separated from her husband and son once there.
Guido doesn’t wish for his son to become frightened, so he invents this crazy idea that they are actually going to a special resort that they were very lucky to be chosen for. Once at the camp he invents a game to explain the harsh conditions. They are all competing to reach 1000 points. The winner will receive a tank as a prize, something his son would love to have. The second half of the film follows his silly exploits all in the name of protecting his son from the horrible truth. But the real truth is that he will sacrifice anything for his wife and son.
The film has received a ton of honors over the years. There is the famous scene of Benigni jumping over chairs to accept the film’s Academy Award for best foreign film. It’s moments like that that appear to show Benigni’s infectious personality and it’s that personality that truly drives every frame of this film. There are other fine performances to be sure. His real-life wife Nicoletta Braschi is quite warm and convincing here. Young Giorgio Cantarini displays the perfect amount of ignorant charm to pull off his crucial role as the unsuspecting son. But there can be no mistake that it is Benigni that carries the burden of this movie on his own shoulders. Of course, he also wrote and directed the film. It is this personality that allows you to feel comfortable enough to laugh at situations you have been taught your whole life not to make jokes about. And that’s really the rub of it all. You have to be willing to allow yourself to enjoy the movie contrary to social conventions that warn you that you absolutely can not. Benigni makes it possible to both laugh and feel genuine warmth for his character not only in spite of the tragic historical context, but because of it.
Life Is Beautiful is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 25 mbps. The image is appropriately quite soft. Colors and detail are a bit washed out, but this is an intended look. The result is an atmosphere that doesn’t taint the material by being too bright or glossy. Colors do pop in the film’s first part where greens and reds particularly stand out. It’s all in solid contrast to the bleak nature of the film’s second half. The image is better than any DVD version before it. The print is relatively clean of artifacts.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is available in both English and Italian. I took the easy way out and used the English version. The dialog was clear and the film maintained its atmospheric feel throughout. There isn’t anything dynamic here, nor should there be.
Making Life Beautiful: (23:27) This is pretty much a promo piece complete with testimonials and very little behind the scenes looks.
Academy Awards Spots: (5:20) I was hoping for the famous Awards performance, but these are merely trailers.
I had a rather enjoyable time with this film. After hearing about it for years I was very happy to finally get a chance to experience it myself, and that’s exactly what this film really is. It’s an experience that you simply must have at least once in your own life. “It’s worth a lot of points.”