Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Life is Beautiful - Movie Review

The last three movies I've watched have curiously prepared me for this one, which I finished Monday. To End All Wars was a WWII film, taking place in a camp of sufferers. The Scarlet and the Black was about a resistance movement in Nazi Rome. Kind Hearts and Coronets was a film from the 1940's.

Life is Beautiful takes elements from all of these and improves on them, being a WWII tale set in Italy with a 1940's style of filming. Mark Twain once said "the personages in a tale [should] be alive, except in the case of corpses, and...the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others." In Life is Beautiful, unlike To End All Wars, a vast amount of time is spent in ensuring the life of the characters, before even a shadow of death darkens the horizon.

The Scarlet and the Black strove both for an amusing main character and menacing villains, but both efforts failed. Life is Beautiful excels in both directions, always evoking the correct response.

Guido and Dora
Kind Hearts and Coronets possibly isn't the best example, but Life is Beautiful, filmed in 1997, has a definite 40's feel to it, recalling The Sound of Music. Like that film, there is a great deal of levity and joy, and when darkness comes it is made all the more disturbing by the contrast.

And now, what of the film on it's own merits? It's astounding. I loved it. Set in pre-war Italy, a Charlie Chaplin-esque waiter named Guido falls in love with society beauty, Dora. Suddenly, a shocking twist - they get married. They have a son, Joshua, and live a happy middle-class life, completely unsullied by the brokenness so common in the 21st century family. Yet darkness looms, as the Nazi hold on Italy tightens. Guido is a clown, but he is under no illusions. He knows what evil looks like, and he's desperate that his young son be protected from it. Some have criticized the film for daring to attempt comedy in the face of such serious subject matter, but while we may be spared the more grisly elements of the holocaust, all the jokes made about it intentionally fall flat, and stand as testaments to the desperation of one man trying to keep hold of joy in a dark, dark world.

The rest of the film alternates between two viewpoints, the innocence of Joshua, and the clear-eyed disillusionment of Guido, but it is held together by a father's complete love for his family. Like Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life, Roberto Benigni plays his role with so much charm and empathy that it's hard to see any element of the story besides him.

Honestly, I have no criticism. Maybe it's just that the humor struck me off guard and sidestepped all my critical cynicism, but if so, I'd like it to stay that way.

Oh, and I almost's in Italian. With subtitles. They're a little hard to keep up with for a while, but one quickly catches up.

Rated PG-13 for holocaust-related themes. No onscreen violence, but a definite menace and implication of it. 

5/5 stars.

Hannah Long

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