By Scott Tennant | @Breakdown_Scott
In the category of A Foreign Language Film, Scott chose Life is Beautiful (1997), written, directed, and starring Roberto Benigni, and also starring Nicoletta Braschi, and Giorgio Cantarini.
Life is Beautiful is probably one of the most accomplished foreign films in the history of the Academy Awards, taking home 3 Oscars on 7 nominations in 1999. There were other great nominees that year, including Saving Private Ryan
, The Thin Red Line
, and Shakespeare in Love
. I was drawn to see what Life is Beautiful was all about, and I wasn’t let down. I am a little familiar with Roberto Benigni’s work, as when Max and I first launched The Critical Breakdown, for our 0% film, Benigni’s famous flop Pinocchio
was one of our options. It’s always interesting to see filmmakers who can both succeed and flop so epically, but luckily today I get to talk about the good stuff.
Life is Beautiful is about a Jewish man living in Italy during World War II; from just that premise you can guess that this is going to be heavy stuff, but you’d be wrong, at least for the first half of the movie. The first half of Life is Beautiful is a charming romance about a lovable goofball who can’t seem to help but be funny. In this half of the film, it’s mostly slapstick, situational humor, and Benigni’s affable Guido proves his character and how goofy he is. Its smart humor, satisfying visually, and like a good comedy, doesn’t linger to long on the individual jokes. There is a momentum to comedy and the first hour of Life is Beautiful is excellent in this regard. Benigni channels an energy and charisma similar to a Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. He drives everything, and is front in center.
The movie takes a turn though, and turns into exactly what you were expecting from the premise. Benigni and his family are picked up by the Nazis and life in the camps is anything but the colorful, jovial life we saw before. The focus of the second half of the film is on Guido and his son Joshua; Guido uses his positive energy and charm to protect his son Joshua from the evils and pressures of the concentration camp. As Guido is forced into labor at the camp, he creates a game to convince Joshua that they are there on their own and keep spirits high. Joshua is totally sheltered thanks to Guido’s energy, and it’s easily some of the most endearing moments I have seen on film. There is a building sense of dread throughout though, and on one hand it always feels like the bottom is going to fall out of the situation, but on the other hand, Benigni’s Guido almost even convinces us viewers that things will be okay. But alas, it’s the Holocaust, life in the camps didn’t have many happy endings. Guido protests his son to the very end, and hides him away as the German officers burn/destroy the camp. Joshua is kept safe, and rescued by the Americans as they come through. Joshua is even reunited with his mother by the end, but Guido wasn’t there either.
It’s a really tough, emotional ending to a beautiful film. It’s a challenge to watch, but Benigni is so endearing that you want to see his story through. Everything in front and behind the camera is totally driven by Benigni, and he shows his talents as a filmmaker. The sets are all very large and utilize the space and color very well. Especially for the visual comedy at the start of the movie. The color and tone is obviously different in the second half, but it’s equally effective. I don’t usually enjoy foreign language films, as I find reading the subtitles a distraction. I want to enjoy the visuals, the details, and the performances, and the subtitles are a drag for me. But here, the timing of the comedy works really well with the subtitles somehow; I can’t really explain it, but it’s a testament to the writing. It’s very well done. I can’t really picture how Benigni, who powers everything here in this excellent film, could make a dud like Pinocchio after this. He has such a sense for the motion and physicality of the comedy, and has a really strong visual eye. Maybe casting himself as a wooden toddler was a problem for Pinocchio, but what do I know. Hopefully I never watch it.
Want to keep up with the rest of our scavenger hunt? Check out the rest of our May Movie Challenge here.