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Release Year: 1997
Genre: Comedy, Drama, War
Director: Roberto Benigni
Pack your lunches and get those permission slips signed, because we're going on a feel trip.
That's right. A feel trip.
As we travel through 1939 Italy, we're going to feel all the feels: love, hate, mirth, horror, hope, sadness, lust, disgust, surprise, passion, suffering, fear, and wonder. And those are just the ones we could say before we ran out of breath.
Our tour guide? None other than Roberto Benigno and his film Life Is Beautiful (La vita è bella).
It's a slapstick comic Holocaust film, and, uh, did you think you'd ever see those three words in the same sentence? We can't think of another writer who'd dare to incorporate comedy into a story about such a horrific chapter in the history of the world. Well, except Charlie Chaplin. And Larry David.
Regardless, it's a risky juxtaposition.
The movie's tale opens with our Italian Jewish hero, Guido Orefice, using his quick wits and boundless charm to win the love of the beautiful Dora.
Years later, Guido's life takes a hard left when he and his family are rounded up by the Nazis and brought to a concentration camp. To protect his son, Joshua (Giosué in Italian), from the horrors of the camp, Guido pretends the situation is an elaborate game, relying again on his wits and charm—this time to save his son's innocence and life.
He also throws in a little Chaplin, too. Because who doesn't love Chaplin? (Well, other than Nazis, of course.)
Released in 1997, Life Is Beautiful earned a shelf-bending number awards and accolades for its writer, director, and star, Roberto Benigni. It won the Grand Prix at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Palme d'Or.
It also snagged seven nominations at the 71st Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It took home Best Actor, Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Original Dramatic Score. It lost Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love because—let's be honest—no one was beating Shakespeare at the Academy that year.
But Life Is Beautiful has its detractors (read: haters). Writing a film about the Holocaust is always a risk—doing it as a comedy is even riskier. Rob Gonsalves labeled it the "final frontier of schmaltz" and hoped viewers' tastes would "turn once more to honesty and reality" (source).
Even more damning were the critics who saw the film as mocking, if unintentionally, the suffering of Holocaust victims. In some cases, maybe even 75 years later is "too soon."
Let's hold off on judgment calls for now and see where this feel trip takes us.
While you're at it, hop down to Costco and pick up a Kleenex Ultra Facial Tissue 10-Pack. Chances are you'll need 'em.
A priest, a rabbi, and an atheist walk into a bar. The bartender looks up and says, "Sorry, obvious joke setups aren't welcome here." The rabbi asks, "Do you know some place we would be welcome?" The bartender points: "Yeah, across the road. Same place I sent the chicken."
We open with an admittedly bad joke to broach the question: Are there places that jokes aren't welcome? More to the point: Are there subjects that one shouldn't joke about?
Over the years, many comedians have come under fire for telling jokes about subjects or incidents that other people consider sensitive and off-limits. At the same time, others have defended the idea that no subject should be off limits to comedy. Ricky Gervais, for one, argues that a subject should never be off limits so long as the joke is true, an intellectual pursuit, and, of course, funny (source).
Enter Life Is Beautiful, stage left.
While the film received many awards and a lot of praise, it also got a fair bit of censure for mixing gallows humor with an event as horrific as the Holocaust. We mentioned Tom Dawson's opinion above, but he's hardly alone.
Writing for Salon, Charles Taylor said the film was "in offensively poor taste" and criticized the "sheer callous inappropriateness of comedy existing within the physical reality of the camps—even the imagined reality of a movie" (source).
Others have argued the film's inclusion of comedy has merit. In his review, Roger Ebert wrote:
The film finds the right notes to negotiate its delicate subject matter. And Benigni isn't really making comedy out of the Holocaust, anyway. He is showing how Guido uses the only gift at his command to protect his son. If he had a gun, he would shoot at the Fascists. If he had an army, he would destroy them. He is a clown, and comedy is his weapon. (Source)
In Ebert's reading of the film, comedy is the weapon we use to defend ourselves against a harsh, uncaring reality. In Taylor's view, comedy takes the unimaginable suffering of others and callously steps over it for cheap chuckles.
How do we reconcile these two very different views? Well…we can't. You can only answer this question for yourself, and you might even find yourself on both sides of the issue depending on the joke in question.
What Life Is Beautiful does is provide a thoughtful, engaging film that allows us to ask these questions of comedy. And that's a perfectly good reason for why you should care about this film.
Also, it manages to do all this without resorting to a single chicken-crossing-the-road joke. Pretty impressive, right?
Wait. What was the answer to Dr. Lessing's final riddle? You can't ask a riddle and then not give us the answer, movie. That's so not cool. Actually, the movie can and does. Benigni has gone on record to say the riddle has no solution and "that it was nonsensical to point [out] the ridiculousness of the situation." (Source)
Dora and Guido are married in real life. Okay, Dora and Guido aren't real, but the actors who play them, Roberto Benigni and Nicoletta Braschi, are real and really married…in real life. (Source)
Life Is Beautiful is not based on a specific story or event, but it did draw inspiration from Rubino Romeo Salmoni's memoir, In the End, I Beat Hitler. Salmoni used gallows humor to show that his life was not destroyed by his time in a concentration camp. If anything, Salmoni believed the ability for Jews to live and appreciate life was the ultimate defeat for Hitler and his goal to exterminate the Jews. (Source)
Good news comes in twos for Benigni. He's one of two directors to have directed himself to an Oscar win for Best Actor. The other is Laurence Olivier, who won the Academy Award for his performance in Hamlet (1948). Benigni is also the second person to win an Oscar for a lead acting performance in a foreign-language film. The first was fellow Italian Sophia Loren for her performance in Two Woman (1961), and the third was Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose (2007). All around, great company to be in. (Source)
Of course, it hasn't been all rainbows and sunshine and Academy Awards for Benigni. There have also been Razzies. In fact, Benigni is one of an exclusive group of thespians who have won both Oscars and Golden Raspberries, which are basically the anti-Oscars given out for a year's worst films and performances.
Benigni won his Golden Raspberry for his acting as the titular character in Pinocchio (2002). Yeah, it may not have been the best choice to have a then 50-year-old man play the puppet who wants to be a real boy. Seriously, just look at this clip.
And it's not like Benigni isn't in good company. Other famous thespians who have won both Academy Awards and Golden Raspberries include Halle Berry, Kevin Costner, Liza Minnelli, and, our old friend, Laurence Olivier. (Source)
Another first for our Roberto was jumping over rows of chairs in his exuberance about winning the Oscar for Life is Beautiful. Life was obviously pretty beautiful for him at that moment. For everyone who hadn't stopped bawling since seeing the film, that poignant moment probably didn't help. (Source).
Back in the '90s
Miramax was responsible for bringing some classic foreign films to American audiences, Three Colors, Princess Mononoke, and Life Is Beautiful among them. It also distributed Tom and Jerry: The Movie so…there's that, too.
Getting to Know You
Get to know the man behind the…fictional man with this biography of Roberto Benigni.
Center for Documentation of Contemporary Judaism
This organization offered consultation to Benigni throughout the making of Life Is Beautiful.
The Failure of Civilization
If you need to study the history of the Shoah (which means "catastrophe" and is the Hebrew term for the Holocaust), look no further than the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Still need more information on the Holocaust? History.com has got your back.
No Holocaust film slouch himself, Steven Spielberg established the Shoah foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving audio-visual accounts from survivors of the Holocaust. It's since expanded to include testimonies from witnesses of other global genocides.
Lost in Translation
Read Spanish? Good. You can read the book that inspired Guido's story.
Pros and Cons
This story, featured in The Jewish News of Northern California, covers audience responses to Life Is Beautiful upon its initial release. Some of it's good, some of it's bad, all of it is worth considering.
At the Movies
In his 1998 review, the late great film critic Roger Ebert explains why life and this movie are both beautiful, and worthy of a thumbs-up.
On the Other Hand
Charles Taylor, writing for Salon, found the film to be "in offensively poor taste." You can see the other side of the Life Is Beautiful discussion in his review.
On the Other, Other Hand
New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin praised the film. In what feels like a direct counter to Taylor's argument, she notes that the film "plays by its own rules." We're starting to think there's no right answer here.
Is the Holocaust a Joke?
That's the question Brain Logan asks himself when he sits down to talk with Benigni. His answer—well, you'll have to read to find out.
Alain Elkann interviews Benigni on everything from his critics to his love life to Charlie Chaplin. Just go read it. Right now. The next set of links can wait.
The official trailer is basically a two-minute plot summary of the entire film. Clearly this was made in the days before spoiler warnings.
Crashing Through the Language Barrier
Benigni's interview with David Letterman comes with an immense language barrier. Ever the professional clown, Benigni takes the opportunity to craft some hilarity.
Dreams Do Come True
Benigni fulfills the dream of many Americans when he jump-hugs Conan O'Brien and professes his love for the man. What? That's not a dream of yours? Oh well, it's a funny interview all the same.
A Sad, Beautiful World
On a more serious note, Joe Leydon interviews Benigni on Life Is Beautiful's more somber notes.
Walking on Sunshine
Actually, Benigni walked on the theater seats to receive his Oscar. But he seemed happy enough to be walking on sunshine.
You know you wanted behind-the-scenes footage of Life Is Beautiful (even if you didn't know you wanted it). Well, we have behind-the-scenes footage of Life Is Beautiful. You're welcome.
Here's the Oscar-winning soundtrack to Life Is Beautiful in all its glory.
Love Those Acoustics
Three of Life Is Beautiful's most popular tracks are played live in the Basilica superior di San Francesco d'Assisi. Good stuff.
La Vita È Bella
If we had to sum up Life Is Beautiful in a single image, its movie poster would be it.
The Kid Stays in the Picture
Benigni and his adorable little co-star on the set.
Tuesday, Friday, Happy Days!
Guido, Dora, and Joshua enjoy a happy moment in this famous scene from Life Is Beautiful.
Step It Up: The Prequel
Guido makes his son laugh and ribs a Nazi with his flamboyant goose step. Chaplin would be proud.
In one of the movie's memorable shots, Joshua's innocence stands framed among the horrors of the camp.
I'd Like to Thank the Academy
Roberto B. accepts his Academy Award in 1999 and looks pretty stoked while doing so.