If one of Woody Allen’s characters were required to give a speech explaining why a room of Italians were the dominant race, he’d be sarcastic, make a fool of himself and be embarrassed in the process. Ask Roberto Benigni’s Guido in “Life is Beautiful,” he’ll make a fool of himself too, but he’ll jump on the table and boldly say how beautiful his belly button is before climbing out the window.
To me, “Life is Beautiful” works because of the film’s opening love story. Benigni presents Guido as a loveable and goofy clown in scenes that Chaplin or Groucho would’ve adored. The beginning is a dopey, screwball comedy fairy tale where the hero has the boisterously loud and fast talking Italian voice but none of the angry shouting. At times he employs broad slapstick when he crashes into the lovely principessa Dora on a bike or steals a poor schmuck’s hat. At others it’s hammy wordplay, like when Guido gets a rich Italian diplomat to order an already prepared salmon, salad and white wine by telling him the only other available options are the very, very fried mushrooms. And at times he puts sheer magic into his movie, convincing Dora he can be granted miracles by the Virgin Mary.
But anyone who has heard of this movie will know it becomes something very different. Years after Guido marries Dora and has a son, they’re hauled off to a concentration camp during the war. Guido convinces his son that their whole stay is part of a game to win a real tank, explaining that if he hides and stays quiet in front of the mean guards, he’ll earn enough points to win one.
Benigni is treading very dangerous ground in trying to be optimistic and funny in the face of the worst human tragedy of all time. If the film were any less sincere about its intentions, I’d likely hate it, but Benigni commits to never letting his act in front of his kid feel fake or phony. He’s a Marx Brother in duress, always one step ahead of a bad situation.
“Life is Beautiful” was greeted by the American public in a wave of good cheer in 1998. The film was nominated for Best Picture and won two Oscars for Benigni for Best Actor and Best Foreign Language Film. Already Benigni had been known as the “funniest man in Italy,” but some of his early American appearances, both on Letterman and in Jim Jarmusch films, confounded at best. By the time this film came out, Benigni was adored. “Life is Beautiful” made a hefty $57 million at the box office, and his acceptance speech at the Oscars has become a thing of legend. People called out “Roberto” as Sophia Loren prepared to read the winner, and when it was so he stood on the chair in front of him and began bowing to and kissing everyone in sight.
It was greeted so favorably that it blocked out the small, but very vocal dissenters who have been able to make their voices heard much more clearly as the film has aged. Their opinion that the conceit of the movie itself is sickening is a valid point. The Holocaust isn’t exactly the butt of the joke in “Life is Beautiful,” but in staying optimistic it white washes just how horrible things were. Should we really be given hope or solace for our lost loved ones based on this one family’s fairy tale survival?
I don’t necessarily feel the same way about the film, but it is definitely something worth understanding.