Life is Beautiful is a film set in Arezzo, Italy in 1939 directed by and featuring Roberto Benigni. As I watched this film, I questioned whether life is in fact beautiful? The name of this film is somewhat ironic. Initially, the film begins as a playful romantic comedy that revolves around an Italian Jew, named Guido (played by Roberto Benigni), and his pursuit of a beautiful school teacher named Dora (played by Nicoletta Braschi, who happens to be Benigni’s wife in real life). But later as the film progresses, the story makes an unexpected turn that will leave you overwhelmed with feelings of sympathy and admiration for the story’s characters, especially Guido.
While watching the first half of Life is Beautiful, it is easy to forget that Guido is a Jew living during the time of World War II. Guido’s charm and enthusiasm distracts viewers from the fact that Jews experience discrimination and prejudice, which is hinted throughout the first half of the film. Years pass and Guido marries the love of his life, Dora, has a little boy named Joshua, and has his dream job of being the owner of a bookstore. Guido has a great life and looks like he will live happily ever after. However, World War II is not over and animosity against Jews is strong as ever. Because Guido is a Jew, he and his family are forced to work and live in a Nazi concentration camp. To protect his son, Joshua, from the horrible reality of how Jews are despised and why their family is away from home, Guido pretends that all the people at the concentration camp are playing a game. The winner of the game will receive the grand prize, a full-sized tank.
I thought the plot of Life is Beautiful was absolutely fantastic because it seems very predictable, but in reality, I would have never been able to foretell the unfortunate events to come. The movie starts out playfully and appears to be a comedic romance of two Italian lovers. After serendipitously meeting Dora for the first time, Guido finds several ways to “accidentally” meet with his love interest again and again. Guido’s quest for love is cute and his encounters with Dora are always spectacular. After Guido wins over the woman of his dreams and settles down to start a family, the viewers of the film are hit with an unforeseen plot twist that you would not expect from a romantic comedy. Guido’s family is interned in a Nazi concentration camp. When this happens, I was taken by surprise. The plot shifts from Guido’s charming pursuit of romance to his loving effort to protect his young son’s innocence in concentration camp through his optimism and cunning. Although the plot shift is sudden and unexpected, the transition is actually smooth. The first and second half of Life is Beautiful feel like they belong in two different films, but share something in common that keeps them together. In both halves of the movie, Guido’s actions are for the sake of love. For this reason, the plot is able to make a shocking transition without diverging from the essence of the movie, that love conquers all.
In addition to the fascinating plot, I also greatly enjoyed the music in Life is Beautiful, which accompanies the film seamlessly. All emotions felt by viewers are enhanced by the perfect kind of music that accurately conveys the feeling and atmosphere of the film at any given time. During the first half of the film, innocent, gleeful melodies are used to help illustrate how the circumstances at the time are pleasant and there is nothing to worry about. When Guido sees Dora, cheery and joyful music plays to accentuate Guido’s pleasure in seeing her. Later in the film, as Guido and his family board the train to concentration camp, the tone of the music is bleak and gloomy to give rise to feelings of depression and decreased morale. Essentially, the music playing in the background perfectly fits the scenes of the film by strengthening the emotions associated with each scene.
I mentioned how I really love the plot of Life is Beautiful, but a minor issue that I have with the plot is how it lacks realism. For instance, one of Guido’s clever plans to “accidentally” cross paths with his crush, Dora, involves posing as a school inspector at Dora’s school. As cunning as Guido may be, I don’t think he would be able to pass under the radar and deceive the teaching staff with such ease. His eccentricity and goofiness would surely cause the teaching staff to be suspicious of him, but no one questions his legitimacy. Something even more unbelievable is the fact that Guido’s son, Joshua, is completely unaware of the hostility and prejudice against Jews. Up until when Joshua and his family are interned in concentration camp, Joshua’s entire life is lived during the era of World War II. Yet, he is blind to the animosity against Jews. At the time, propaganda against Jews would be everywhere and harsh treatment of Jews would be evident. Even when he is confined in concentration camp, he is still clueless to what is going on, which I think should be very unlikely. The way how some parts of the plot are not realistically written somewhat bothers me.
Speaking of lack of realism, in my opinion, the setting of the concentration camp in the film did not convey a sense of danger and fear that I would have expected from a Nazi concentration camp. From what I’ve learned about Nazi concentration camps, I thought they were very cruel, harrowing places to say the least. But, the concentration camp illustrated in Life is Beautiful is missing the perils and tribulations that I imagined. Nobody is starving or dying, there is no excessively dangerous or back-breaking work, and there is not a great amount of oppression from the Nazis. In Life is Beautiful, the condition of the concentration camp is that bedrooms are overcrowded, Jews held in confinement are dirty, and Jews have to carry heavy anvils every now and then. I simply expected a concentration camp to be much more horrendous than the concentration camp portrayed in this film.
As for the characters of Life is Beautiful, my favourite character is definitely Guido, played by Roberto Benigni. I was very impressed by Benigni’s acting. Even though he is the director of the film, it is obvious that he did not neglect directing himself while he directed the rest of the cast. Benigni played Guido’s character outstandingly well. His charisma, which is magnetically charming and appealing, is clearly visible throughout the film. I liked how Guido’s character is full of vitality and lives life enthusiastically. I was also amused by Guido’s hilarious antics, like when he helps a Nazi soldier explain the “rules” of concentration camp. But, most of all, I respect Guido’s will to protect his son, Joshua. I truly admired Guido’s positivity and optimism despite being in such a horrific and frightening place. Protecting Joshua is Guido’s top priority and he does everything he can to prevent Joshua from harm and learning the realities of Nazi concentration camp. People who wish to protect precious people in their lives can relate to Guido. Anybody, but especially mothers and fathers, will be able to make connections to how Guido protects his loved ones no matter what.
Not only did I did enjoy Roberto Benigni’s character, but I also quite enjoyed Giorgio Cantarini’s character, Joshua. For such a young actor, Cantarini played Joshua’s character extremely well. As I watched Cantarini, it did not feel like he was just acting the role, but rather, it felt like he was living the role. His portrayal of a sincere, innocent little boy, who is unsuspecting of what is really going on, seems real. Before his family is sent to concentration camp, he questions why Jews are not allowed in certain shops in town, which does not seem fake. Cantarini’s excellent acting made Joshua appear to be genuinely naïve and innocent. Furthermore, in the concentration camp, Joshua’s strong connection with Guido, as well as his desire to be with his mother and go home also felt genuinely authentic. I think that people who have grown out of their childhood can relate to Joshua. As a young child, you are naïve and do not have wisdom that adults have and you do not know what is really going on in the world.
All things considered, Life is Beautiful is a phenomenal film that everyone should watch. The compelling plot will move you. Although I have pet peeves about the film’s realism and how the concentration camp is poorly portrayed, this movie is not about the Holocaust, Nazis, or World War II. This movie is about a man trying his best to protect his son’s innocence in the midst of bleak and adverse circumstances and about how love conquers all. If you are looking for a film that will make you laugh, cry, and become inspired to do whatever it takes protect the ones you love, Life is Beautiful is a film that you should definitely watch. I give Life is Beautiful four and a half out of five stars.
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