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LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini
Director:  Roberto Benigni
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Miramax
Features:  Trailer, TV Spots, Featurette
Length:  116 Minutes
Release Date:  November 9, 1999

Film ****

I can't help but think of a story that was told to me in my youth.  Three men were waiting outside of the Pearly Gates, waiting to be admitted into Heaven.  St. Peter approached to determine which of the three might be allowed in first.  One of the men stood proudly and announced he should be the first one in—he had been a doctor in life, and tried to make men healthier.  The second man was equally adamant that he should go first, for he had been a teacher, and tried to make men wiser.  When St. Peter approached the third fellow, he humbly stated, “Oh, I just tried to make men laugh.  I was only a clown.”  And this meek fellow was admitted before his statelier companions.

The spirit of that story is the equal of the indomitable spirit of writer/director/actor Roberto Benigni in his masterpiece, Life is Beautiful.  This is a film about courage, made with courage, and asserts with laughter through tears just how much the human spirit cannot be crushed, even in the most horrifying of circumstances.  It's the kind of motion picture that reminds you, in wonderful ways, just how much magic is still left in the art form to be discovered and captured.  It was my pick for best film of 1998, and happily, I wasn't alone…many other critics embraced this warm, heartfelt little picture from Italy, even over the likes of the gorgeous Shakespeare in Love or the overwhelmingly powerful Saving Private Ryan.

Benigni is Guido…a simple waiter living in Tuscany during the second World War.  He is a comic prince who finds beauty in everything around him…especially after falling in love with Dora (Braschi), a woman who almost literally falls from the sky and into his arms.  And for the entire first act of the movie, this humble man pulls out all the stops to win her heart, even though she's engaged to a Fascist bureaucrat.  With expert timing, the beaming Guido makes everyday simple occurrences seem like magic.  At one point, during an opera, all eyes in the audience are locked on the stage, except for Guido, who gazes longingly up to the balcony and the woman he loves.  Not even the production can take his attention away from her.  Forget Hollywood cream puff date movies.  This is real romance.

But in the second act, things begin to go terribly wrong.  Guido is Jewish, and as such, so is his and Dora's son, Joshua (Cantarini), and as the war is coming to an end, both are forcibly taken by the Italian army, loaded onto trucks, and carted off to concentration camps.  Dora, though Gentile, insists on coming along to be with her family, but cannot see them, as the men are kept separate from the women.

It is here that Guido's humor and spirit must somehow triumph over the horror show occurring around him.  Wanting to keep his son alive, and also to protect his innocence for just a little while longer, he makes believe with his son that it's all a big game.  The objects, naturally, are to keep quiet, stay hidden and avoid the “mean guys who yell a lot”.  The first to earn a thousand points will win a real tank to drive home in.  And despite the bleakness of the surroundings, Joshua does begin to buy into the game a little bit.  Guido's ability to smile and laugh through the tension keeps his five year old son from knowing, for just a little while longer, that there are evil people in the world who would kill you just for being who you are.

It is important to stress that Benigni does not make light of the holocaust.  Not at all.  He doesn't pretend that there is anything in it that provides material for laughs.  The holocaust is merely the background he has chosen to tell his story about the triumph of hope…and there can be no stronger celebration of hope than by showing its ability to survive even when things are at their darkest.  And although there aren't many opportunities, Guido does create a magical moment or two for his son and his beloved Dora, as when he greets her over the camp's speakers, or plays a record of the opera they saw together and aims the sound toward the women's barracks.

But Benigni does not shy away from the terrifying horrors of the holocaust, and while this film doesn't go as far as Schindler's List in portraying them, the point is made…as when we see Guido's uncle preparing for the shower, after being told earlier that the shower was really the gas chamber.  Or the film's most potent moment, when Guido, carrying his sleeping son, steps out of the mist and finds himself looking at an incredible pile of human remains.

What Benigni has created with Life is Beautiful is a pure cinematic masterpiece…unique and unforgettable.  He has been compared to Charlie Chaplin, which is an agreeable comparison…both are artists who are so amazing to watch in front of the camera that one could easily forget to think about their genius behind it.  His performance may have garnered him a well-deserved Academy Award, but it's his courageous work as writer and director to dare to make a film about hope and the human spirit against the backdrop of the holocaust that has given the world a treasure that will not soon fade.  Benigni will make you believe that love, hope and spirit can truly conquer all…the smile that shone through on my face through my tears was proof enough for me.

Video ***1/2

It's not anamorphic, but this is still a terrific, quality transfer from Miramax.  This DVD looks decidedly better than even the two theatrical presentations of the film I saw, and Benigni's use of color and light play beautifully here.  The first act is largely sunlit and very colorful, the second act is grayer, darker, with sparser lighting sources.  Both halves look terrific, with excellent color rendering, sharp images, no grain or break-up and no bleeding. 

Audio ***

Although watching in Italian, I did notice the soundtrack was quite nicely done, too, especially with the Oscar winning musical score, which swelled from all channels at the appropriate moments.  Apart from these aspects, I noticed some sparing but effective uses of the rear speakers which added a bit of ambience to certain scenes, though the .1 channel wasn't called on very much.  Overall, still, a perfectly fine listening experience that enhances the enjoyment of the film.

Features **1/2

The disc contains a trailer, countless TV spots, and a terrific half hour featurette, that mostly documents Benigni's incredible journey after making the film, showing clips of him accepting some of his 70 some international movie awards including the Grand Prix at Cannes.  There are also a few Hollywood stars, like Walter Matthau and Michael Keaton, who offer their reactions to this extraordinary film.

Summary:

It's this simple.  If you haven't seen Life is Beautiful, please, please do so.  I'm not too proud to beg where this picture is concerned.  With this quality DVD, there's no reason for you to pass this film up—to do so would truly and honestly deprive you of one of the most magical, rewarding, and yes, beautiful movie going experiences you will ever have.  Bravo, Roberto!