Tuesday, June 14, 2011
#138: Life is Beautiful
Life is Beautiful is a touching story about a happy-go-lucky Italian waiter, Guido (Roberto Benigni) whose ultimate ambition in life is to get married to a local school teacher Dora (Nicoletta Braschi). The movie begins in Azurro in 1939, at the cusp of World War II and a somewhat flimsy funny first twenty minutes tell you nothing of the tragedy that awaits Guido.
The movie then cuts to a few years later when we see Guido happily married and managing a book store with his son Giosue. You know something wrong is in the offing when two German soldiers ask Guido to come to the police station in broad daylight. Guido being Guido walks off with a smile on his face even managing to make his son laugh while he's being taken captive by the soldiers. Guido's jewish origins mean that he along with his son will be taken to a concentration camp. That's when the movie's serious tenor hits you because you realize that Guido's ideal family life is going to get uprooted right in front of your eyes. Whether Guido and his son can survive the travails of the camp is the essence of Life is Beautiful.
Roberto Benigni resorts to a slapstick brand of humor in the pre-war segment of the movie and while the idea must've been to bring us level with the character of Guido, it is a segment you're least likely to be impressed with. The movie acquires it's wings only after Guido is sent to the prison camp after which it is very much a one-man show with Benigni carrying the movie on his shoulders. In Benigni's handling of this delicate situation with his quirky sense of humor, even as the father and son are on the heels of being executed, lies the movie's charm. For his performance Benigni went on to receive a Best Actor Oscar thus becoming the only second person after Laurence Olivier to direct himself to a Best Actor.
Vikramaditya Motwane mentioned in an interview that a humorous World War II movie called Underground would change the way he would look at movies forever and that it was far superior to Life is Beautiful. In all fairness, until the end, this is an average-war movie and you know you've seen better when it comes to human stories. For there are numerous routes filmmakers have taken to depict human stories based around World War-II. For instance, Schindler's List takes one of compassion, and The Pianist takes one of survival. I am yet to see Underground and cannot comment on the specific comparison yet, it's still fair to say that Life is Beautiful will leave it's mark for it's poignancy. Maybe the fact that this isn't a true story reduces the dramatic tension but Life is Beautiful for sure would comfortabtly make any 'B' list of top ten war movies.