Touching comedy dramas set in concentration camps are few and far between (I’m sure most of us can maybe think of this one and . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . well that’s me all out of candidates) so we should be thankful that Life Is Beautiful makes a reasonably good job of handling such delicate material.
The first hour of the movie is, basically, all a set up for the second half. It’s not without merit (indeed, there are plenty moments to enjoy) but the characters are introduced in a way that you suspect will figure into the plot later on while the main character, Guido (Roberto Benigni), is shown to be a happy-go-lucky chap with a fertile imagination who becomes determined to win the heart of Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, who is Benigni’s wife in real life – that’s my factoid of the day). And then the bad stuff moves onscreen and Guido ends up in a concentration camp with his young son. Determined to shield his son from the very real horrors around them, Guido constructs an elaborate charade. He convinces his son that the whole thing is just a game and that the first person to reach 1000 points will win a very special prize.
I’ll admit it, I was ready to hate Life Is Beautiful. I was expecting something horribly mishandled and full of tooth-rotting sugary moments. The movie dances into the realm of the overly sweet on a number of occasions but somehow manages to dance back just before it all gets too much. This is due, in no small part, to Benigni and his comic performance. The scene in which he translates the rules being shouted out by a German officer is absolutely fantastic, a great combination of witty writing and a winning physical performance. I still think that the film is one of the least worthy Oscar winners of the 1990s but that’s not me trying to be overly harsh on the thing – it definitely deserved praise for the way it tackled the story and mixed the bleak with the uplifting – but, in sheer technical terms, it’s a disappointing affair with nothing outstanding in the way of camerawork, editing, etc.
The fact is that the movie is lifted completely by Benigni, his performance and likeability holding the attention of the audience and distracting them from the bad stuff on the sidelines, not entirely unlike how his character holds the attention of his son. This means that we’re left with a good film, one worth watching even if it’s not absolutely essential viewing.
Life Is Beautiful is out on Blu-ray on Monday 2nd April and comes with a number of extra featurettes including an introduction by Martin Scorsese, a “making of…” that runs for about 54 minutes, a featurette entitled “Revisiting Life Is Beautiful – 15 Years After”, the trailer and some B-roll footage. It’s not a perfect package but it does have enough to satisfy fans of the film.
DIRECTOR: ROBERTO BENIGNI
WRITER: ROBERTO BENIGNI, VINCENZO CERAMI
STARS: ROBERTO BENIGNI, NICOLETTA BRASCHI, GIORGIO CANTARINI, GIUSTINO DURANO, HORST BUCHHOLZ
RUNTIME: 118 MINS APPROX