The Nazis have been entertainment's go-to bad guys since 1941 (wonder why). Indiana Jones does his best archeology work when he's punching Nazis in the face, and William "BJ" Blazkowicz has probably killed more Nazis during his tenure as the hero of the Wolfenstein video game series than there were actual Nazis in history.
But Guido isn't exactly a face-punching, gun-toting, testosterone-laced hero of yore, so Life Is Beautiful takes a different approach to Nazis. They're still the antagonists, but things are a little less Saturday-morning cartoon villain here.
So how does the film use the imagery of the Nazis symbolically? First, let's briefly break down what Nazism, more specifically National Socialism, believed.
National Socialism was an extreme form of fascism, a political ideology that promotes "militaristic nationalism, contempt for electoral democracy and political and cultural liberalism, a belief in natural social hierarchy and the rule of elites, and the desire to create a Volksgemeinschaft (German: 'people's community'), in which individual interests would be subordinated to the good of the nation" (source).
In short, whatever makes your nation stronger is good, and the needs of individuals and other nations mean nothing. It helps if you can find enemies, many enemies, to coalesce your nationalism around. And if you can pin all the nation's troubles on those enemies—Jews, say—then the solution is final and simple: eliminate them once and for all.
If you subscribed to the National Socialist ideology, you turned your individuality over to that ideology and your totalitarian leader—all of you, body and mind. Life Is Beautiful instills this fact into its Nazi characters.
Note that, with the exception of Dr. Lessing, none of the Nazi characters have names. They also lack distinguishing personalities. They're all two-dimensional, stern, humorless, and unnaturally stiff-backed. They have no relationships with other people. They also yell—like, a lot.
Now compare the Nazi characters to most of the other characters. Characters who don't subscribe to Nazism have a variety of personalities, from the fun-loving Guido to the self-absorbed Rodolfo to the street-smart Bartolomeo. They have relationships and lives beyond their social roles. They even have names and can speak in tones other than "angry headmaster."
These contrasting characteristics clue us in to the film's argument against National Socialism. This worldview not only leads to atrocities like the Holocaust, but it also strips those who follow it of their individuality. They're no longer people in the eyes of their nation; they're just cogs in the machine.
And while it is certainly fun to watch Hellboy beat up Mecha Hitler, we've gotta say that Life Is Beautiful's more nuanced approach to Nazi villainy will stick with us a bit longer.
From video games to backyard campaigns with tiny green men, children and toy enthusiasts have played with tanks for the better part of a century. But these machines were designed to turn the tides of WWI's trench warfare and, you know, kill people. Isn't it a little odd that we've turned these weapons of war into toys for kids?
Maybe, maybe not. We're not here to debate the point; we're here to discuss how Life Is Beautiful turns this interesting part of childhood into a symbol, one representing Guido's desire to protect his son's innocence.
We see Joshua's interest in tanks right away. When we're first introduced to him, he's complaining that he lost his toy tank. Later, when his grandmother visits, he asks if the present she'll bring him is a new tank. It isn't, but we can clearly see that this kiddo is obsessed with front-line armored combat vehicles.
After Joshua, Guido, and Eliseo are brought to the concentration camp, Guido gets his inspiration to hide their situation from Joshua by pretending it's all a game:
JOSHUA: What game is this?
GUIDO: That's it! It's that game where…it's the game…we're all players. It's all organized. The game is the men are over here, the women are over there. Then there's the soldiers. They give us our schedule. It's hard, you know. It's not easy. If somebody makes a mistake, they get sent right home. That means you have to be very careful. But if you win, you get first prize!
JOSHUA: What's the prize?
GUIDO: Uh, first prize!
ELISEO: It's a tank.
Just like Joshua playing with his toy tank in the greenhouse, Guido's turned the horrors of war into a game. Later, we learn that the concentration camp is forcing the prisoners into hard labor in the factory. Their job? To make a real tank for the war effort.
We can see that the imagery of the tank connects the reality of war with an innocent, childish understanding of war. On the one hand, we see the suffering the tanks brings to the prisoners as they're forced into backbreaking labor building one. On the other hand, we see the joy the toy brings Joshua when he thinks about playing with it.
In order to protect his son's innocence, Guido takes the imagery of war (the tank) and strips it of its horrible implications, turning it into the game/toy version of itself.
And it goes beyond the tank. Guido lies about why he and the other prisoners are tired (playing games all day), keeps his son from realizing his life's in danger (it's a game of all-day hide-and-seek), and twists the truth about the inhuman treatment they are suffering (the serial tattoo is his number to play the game).
All of this is wrapped up in the image of the tank. And it works, too. At the end of the film, Joshua sees the American tank and believes it's his prize for having won the game. In his mind, it's still a game, his innocence preserved.
Although, we have to ask, what happens when he has to give that tank back to the Americans?
The Ethiopian cake is one of the gaudiest baked goods we've ever seen, and we've watched a lot of Cake Wars. Like, an embarrassing amount.
So we had to ask ourselves two questions. First, what's up with this unnecessary confection that looks like it wandered into the movie from day-time reality television? Turns out it's actually a subtle little reminder of the political climate of 1939 Italy.
Quick history lesson: in 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia because, well, it wanted it. Under Benito Mussolini's fascist regime, Italy underwent a major imperial push in the late 1930s, and it decided it wanted to acquire Ethiopia as part of its empire.
By 1936, Ethiopia was defeated and claimed by Italy. The League of Nations' response was some unenforced economic sanctions, and a couple countries exclaimed, "Dude, not cool" (source).
The Ethiopian cake is a subtle, not-so-subtle reminder of how imperialism subjugates not only territory but also cultures and individuals as well.
The cake is a giant ostrich clinging a giant ostrich egg in its mouth. It's decked out with gold chains and giant jewels, like the thing ran blindly through a grandmother's closet. And it's got candles and feathers in the red, green, and white colors of the Ethiopian flag.
Ethiopian culture has been appropriated to be used as a tawdry confection. It's not here so the guests can celebrate Ethiopian culture as a beautiful facet of the universal human experience. Nope. They're celebrating how awesome it was that Italy snagged up Ethiopia for its own. Notice the soldier in the background saluting as the cake goes by.
Yep, there's a guy who's so stoked about imperialism that he salutes a cake.
In fact, despite the name, this cake probably tells us more about fascist Italy's worldview at the time—i.e., the wealth of other countries is ours for the taking—than anything about Ethiopia or its people.
Speaking of which, the people serving the cake are Ethiopians. Again, they aren't there to share their culture as equals. Instead, they've been forced to accept Italian dominance over their culture, and the only room Italian society has for them is as servants.
Of course, this movie isn't about the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. Instead, this imagery shows us the imperialist mindset of the era, one not limited to Italy (it was shared by Germany and Japan), and poke fun at it a bit, too.
Our second question: why do they have tiny mirrors on the side of the cake? Last we checked, mirrors do not make for good eats.
The pile of corpses at the concentration camp isn't one of the lovelier images in Life Is Beautiful, but it's one of the more memorable. You're probably a few steps ahead of us on this one, but we'll lay it out there all the same: this image represents the staggering toll of death and misery during the Holocaust.
Guido comes across the sight the evening of the dinner party. Dr. Lessing has proven a lesser man than Guido hoped by not offering any help. Leaving the party, Guido wanders in the fog with his sleeping son in his arms.
Comforting the boy, he says, "Where are we here? I might have taken the wrong way. Good boy, sleep. Dream sweet dreams. Maybe it's only a dream! We're dreaming, Joshua." When he turns the corner, he comes across a mountain of corpses.
Now, any historian will tell you this is an ahistorical image. The Nazis didn't usually leave piles of their victims lying around. In order to hide the evidence of their crimes, the Nazis buried their victims in mass graves or burned the bodies in the crematoria. Later, as the Allied forces advanced across Europe, orders were given to go as far as to exhume the mass graves and burn those to ash as well (source).
But this scene is meant to be more symbolic than factual. The pile of bodies looks like a medieval painting of hell . The Holocaust was a type of hell on earth, and the parallels in the imagery could certainly be seen as representing such incalculable suffering.
Adding to this reading is the journey through the fog, which suggests Guido leaving the physical world to a place more mystical in nature.
Alternatively, the imagery could be a look into Guido's psyche. Note that Joshua's asleep and doesn't witness the horrific sight. Only Guido sees the full extent of the horror. In this way, we could see this as the toll the "game" is taking on Guido.
His son remains blissfully unaware of the suffering of the Holocaust, as if in a dream, while Guido bears the terror of the situation alone. Faced with such unimaginable pain and suffering, he does what he can and keeps moving.
It's not all fantastical, though. When the Red Army and the Americans reached some of the abandoned death camps in 1945, they did find piles of bodies left behind in the Nazis' haste to abandon the camps. Supreme Allied Commander and future prez Dwight D. Eisenhower made it his business to visit one liberated camp:
The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where they were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said that he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to "propaganda." (Source)
We knew there was a reason we liked Ike.
The first thing we should point out is that Arthur Schopenhauer's philosophy does not include a treatise on bending reality to your will by way of spirit fingers. Although, now that we think about it, he may be more widely read today if it did. Dude would have owned the bestseller list for the past one hundred years.
Okay, if spirit fingers don't figure into Schopenhauer's concept of the will, then what's at play here? To answer that, you'll need to dive into Schopenhauer's epic, two-volume work The World As Will and Representation. In case you don't have time to read a thousand-plus pages of German philosophy, here's the snack-sized version.
For Schopenhauer, the Will (with a capital W) provides the foundation for everything in the world. It's the mindless, irrational drive of desires and life. You're keenly aware of one example of the Will: your internal reality.
As Schopenhauer explains, you can only see the external representations of objects and people, but you're internally aware of your own desires, feelings, subjective thoughts, and so on. This is your Will, and if you have a Will, then it stands to reason that everyone, and everything, does as well.
It's not all great news, though. Schopenhauer argues that the Will is the cause of all our suffering. In a move jacked straight from the Buddha's playbook, Schopenhauer argues that only escape from this suffering is to limit one's desires (source).
Now let's wrap back around to Life Is Beautiful. Here's how the concept of will is introduced in the film:
GUIDO: Were you sleeping?
FERRUCIO: Of course I was.
GUIDO: You fell asleep while talking to me! How did you do that?
FERRUCIO: Schopenhauer says that with willpower, you can do anything. "I am what I want to be." Right now I want to sleep, so I was saying to myself, "I'm sleeping, sleeping," and I fell asleep.
GUIDO: Amazing. And it's simple. I want to try, too. I'm sleeping, sleeping, sleeping—
Life Is Beautiful is borrowing a few key concepts from Schopenhauer. The idea of an internal will that can be focused to produce results is one. In this scene, Ferruccio's focusing his internal desires to just one, sleep. And so, he sleeps.
Like Ferruccio, Guido limits his desires to focus on one or two things that he really wants in life. In the first half of the film, that thing is Dora's love, and we see him use the will to draw Dora's attention to him in the theater. In the second half of the film, it's keeping Joshua safe, and we again see him use the will, this time to draw a guard dog away from Joshua's hiding spot.
We shouldn't dig too deep into comparing Life Is Beautiful's concept of will with Schopenhauer's Will. The movie isn't trying to provide a thorough analysis of the philosophy, but more just borrowing a few key points.
Lucky for us, because becoming a philosopher wasn't on our to-do list today.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
In case you missed it, the ordinary world is splayed across the screen at the beginning of the film: Italy 1939. Here, we also meet our hero/protagonist, Guido. Guido's a man who's just trying to make his way in the world. He's heading to the city to work for his uncle as a waiter, and he'll try to open a bookstore while he's there. Pretty straightforward hero stuff.
The call to adventure is really the call to romance. When Dora falls into his arms—not once, but twice—Guido becomes infatuated with her. As he goes about his days, he continues to bump into her, and he decides his quest shall be to win her heart.
Guido never really refuses the call. It's more that other things draw his attention away from pursuing Dora. He's got his waiting job, trying to open his bookstore, and helping Dr. Lessing solve those confounded riddles. He never actively decides, "Nah, I don't have time for wooing right now." He's just got stuff to do.
The closest thing Guido has to a mentor is his Uncle Eliseo. Eliseo teaches him how to be a waiter but also how to approach life, such as finding pride and grace in the art of serving others. Unfortunately, not all of Eliseo's lessons are life-affirming. He's the victim of anti-Semitic attacks, and he tries to teach Guido that he'll have to face such attacks, too. Guido doesn't buy it.
Here, Guido commits to pursuing Dora's heart. Typically, this is the stage where the hero decides to leave the ordinary world and start journeying into the unknown. For a bachelor like Guido, this means inviting Dora into his world. He absconds with her after the opera, and the two spend a lovely kidnapping together. Thanks to his wit, charm, and bonkers amount of luck, Guido manages to win her over.
Guido is tested at Dora's engagement party. He chooses to go the distance and whisks her away from marrying that awful Rodolfo. As a result, he gets an ally in Dora and later in his son Joshua. But he also makes an enemy of the fascists who are running Italy. Of course, that's not his fault. He's a Jewish man in a society that is becoming more and more anti-Semitic.
Years later, Guido begins his approach to the inmost cave. In a traditional hero's story, the inmost cave represents a world of danger. In Life Is Beautiful, the cave is represented by the concentration camp.
Unlike the hero's cave, it isn't even Guido's choice to approach the camp. The government rounds up the Jews and other "undesirables" and sends them to the camp. So, Guido's next round of hero-ing isn't something he chooses; it's something circumstances force on him.
The ordeal has the hero facing his greatest fear. For Guido, that fear is that his son will realize the true horrors of the camp. To face this ordeal, Guido hides the reality of the situation by pretending the whole affair is a game: a horrible, dirty, terrible, awful, no-good game. To sweeten the deal, he tells Joshua that he gets a tank if they win.
The reward is an item received by the hero to help him fight evil and restore order to the world. Guido never has to seize the reward though because he's had it with him from the start: an indomitable human spirit.
Through Guido's trials, we start to recognize the power of this reward. The Nazis work him to near death. He has to keep coming up with new stories to hide the situation from Joshua. But he doesn't break. He continues to find joy where he can and protect Joshua's love of life.
In a traditional hero's story, the road back shows the hero's return to the ordinary world. But we receive no such luck in Life Is Beautiful as Guido will not be returning to that world.
Instead, this stage is a total fake out. When Guido meets up with Dr. Lessing, he hopes that the doctor will help him and his family escape. However, Dr. Lessing only appears to be helping Guido so that Guido that help the doctor solve a riddle. It's truly heartbreaking.
Ironically, this stage involves Guido's death. And he isn't coming back.
At this point, Guido's tested again as the Nazis begin evacuating the camp. Realizing the war is over, Guido tells Joshua to hide. Then he heads to the women's side of the camp to rescue Dora. Unfortunately, he's caught. Rather than give up his wife or son, he accepts his fate in order to keep his family safe.
Guido, our hero, won't be returning home. But Joshua will. The ordinary world is restored when the Nazis are defeated and the America forces move in. Taking his father's place, Joshua returns to the normal world (i.e., one without Fascists and death camps and Hitler) with the elixir. In Life Is Beautiful, the elixir isn't a special potion but simply a love of life and the human spirit, which Guido managed to preserve in his son thanks to his sacrifice.
The setting for Life Is Beautiful is Italy during World War II, and any setting placed in this time period is the research equivalent of a white-rabbit hole.
You can dive deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper. You can read book after book on this period in history, chart intricate timelines, and pick out historical inaccuracies. By the time you're done, you'll have fallen through the center of the earth and come out the other side where people walk upside down.
To keep you right-side up—and to prevent you from reading an encyclopedia of info—we're going to stick with the basics here and focus on the question: Why is it important that this film is set in this time period?
Initially, the story sticks to an Italian city in 1939. World War II isn't in full swing, and the city is seen as an inviting place. As Guido and Ferruccio first explore the city, they are blown away by how wonderful it is:
GUIDO: Look at this! Didn't I tell you? We're in a city. You can do whatever you want. If you want to do something, you do it. You want to let yourself go? You want to yell? Yell!
[Ferruccio starts yelling.]
GUIDO: Stop it! What are you, crazy? You can't act like you do in the country. You've been yelling like a madman. You can't yell!
There are a few hints of what's to come, though. Eliseo is victimized by two anti-Semitic attacks in which his property's damaged and he's knocked to the ground. The school children are given a lecture on the superiority of their race (which Guido magnificently sabotages). And we see the odd Italian soldier here and there.
However, for most of the first half, the city's just a backdrop for the romantic comedy story.
By the time we enter the second half, the cityscape has dramatically changed. Signs of anti-Semitism are more apparent. Store windows have signs saying Jewish people are not allowed to enter, and Guido's storefront is graffitied identifying it as a Jewish-owned business.
The pristine streets of the first half are covered with the signs of war: soldiers, sandbag barricades, and defensive artillery litter the streets.
Through the transformation of the city, Life Is Beautiful visually shows us the result of a society gradually adopting a militaristic and fascist worldview.
What was once an inviting, friendly place of life and love has become oppressive and threatening. The city where people of all walks of life could get together, enjoy the theater, work together, and go on dates has now become a society that has segregated itself and, in the process, is slowly self-destructing.
Life Is Beautiful never names the concentration camp Guido and his family are sent to, but there are some hints that the camp is meant to be Auschwitz. For example, Guido receives a prisoner number tattoo on his arm, and the Auschwitz camp complex is the only location known to have ID'd the prisoners this way.
But other things don't line up with the historical account. Among the more obvious, it was the Soviet army, not the Americans, that liberated the camp on January 27, 1945 (source).
But Life Is Beautiful's goal isn't to be historically accurate. It's telling a more symbolic story, and as a result, its concentration camp setting is less a historical account and more of an artistic reconstruction of the Holocaust's horrors as a whole.
You can see this in…well, do we even need to list the details? There's Guido's hours of forced labor to create armaments for the German army; the gas chamber Uncle Eliseo is sent to; the women sorting the piles of clothes taken from the dead. And, most chilling of all, the mountain of corpses Guido discovers while wandering the camp in the fog.
All of these terrible acts really happened, even if they aren't presented as they would have been in a straight historical drama.
Ironically, in pursuing a goal of symbolism, the film actually downplays the inhumane acts perpetrated at Nazi concentration camps like Auschwitz. The suffering the Holocaust inflicted on its victims was beyond anything we see in the film—arguably beyond anything we could ever capture in a film that wasn't a documentary.
Had the film attempted to capture that historical accuracy, it's likely its uplifting story wouldn't have been possible. Staggering amounts of starvation and death were everywhere in the camps, so it's unlikely that someone of Joshua's age and intelligence would have been ignorant of them, regardless of how convincing his father's stories were.
People would have been dying all around him. In fact, he wouldn't have even made it into the camp. He would've been "selected" when he got off the train.
But as we said, Life Is Beautiful isn't trying to present real history. For better or worse, the film is using the camp as a symbol, contrasting man's inhumanity against his fellow man with Guido's desire to protect his son from it. Whether Life Is Beautiful succeeds with this setting, or whether it should have even attempted such a portrayal in the first place, will be up to you, the viewer.
Life Is Beautiful is really two movies for the price of one. Narratively speaking, of course. You won't have to pay twice to see the story through to the end.
The first half of the film follows the rom-com recipe to the letter. It starts with a meet cute, a scene where the future lovers meet in unexpectedly awkward yet adorable fashion. Dora falling out of the barn and into literally Guido's arms? Check.
Then we have the love triangle. Dora already has a boyfriend, Rodolfo, but we know he's not right for her because he's a huge jerk. He is textbook wrong guy first.
Mr. Right, Guido, begins wooing Dora through a series of grand gestures and eccentric behaviors. Grand gestures like stalking and kidnapping. You know, the kind of stuff that will win you a woman's eternal love in the movies, but only net you a restraining order in real life. We guess it helps that Guido is adorkable.
Ferruccio opts in as the quirky friend who helps him with his schemes to win Dora's love. And, of course, in the end, Dora decides she wants to be with Guido, ditches Rodolfo, and rides off with him on a green horse. And they all lived happily ever after. Except maybe Rodolfo.
You'll notice that the first half of the film even follows the three-act structure of a rom-com. The first act introduces all of the characters. The second act shows the romantic leads getting to know each other and fall in love despite pesky obstacles like a fiancé. Finally, the third act shows them profess their love and get together.
See what we mean? Total rom-com.
Well, except the "happily ever after" part. Life Is Beautiful keeps on where most rom-coms would roll credits. And things take a hard left for Dora and Guido in the second half.
The second half of the film mixes the wistful comedy of the first half with a war drama set in a concentration camp. The result is what is called gallows humor. That is, the treatment of serious, and sometimes painful, subjects with humor. The idea being that laughter is cathartic, and comedy can help us process and deal with such horrible subjects—in this case, the Nazi extermination camps.
This gallows comedy restarts the classic three-act structure. The first act introduces us to the new players and situation, such as Joshua and the concentration camp. The second act shows Guido using his wits and humor to meet a goal and overcome obstacles. Only this time, the goal is to protect his son, and the obstacles are life-and-death rather than one-upping some jerk. Finally, the third act concludes the story by showing us whether Guido succeeds in his goal.
In this way, the second half of the film provides a dark mirror to the first. While the first half is about romantic love in good times, the second half focuses on the love of family in dark times. While first half takes place in a lush, vibrant Italian city, the second half takes place in a dingy, industrial concentration camp. While the first half's comedy makes us feel lighthearted, the second half's comedy serves to underline the tragedy of the Holocaust.
Both halves are really their own movies, but they're connected to play and contrast each other, heightening the emotions and messages of each.
Life Is Beautiful is one part comedy, and that, as you've probably guessed, is an odd pairing for a movie dealing with the Holocaust.
Let's dive a little deeper.
The first half of the film is pure rom-com. Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy schemes several humorous and adorable "coincidental" meetings to win girl's heart. Girl falls in love with boy because, face it, he's adorkable.
The second half of the movie has Guido protecting his son in a concentration camp. He uses the same wit, imagination, and humor he used to woo Dora to convince his son that the horrors of the camp are just part of a difficult game.
So there's humor in Life Is Beautiful, but maybe it's overstating the case to call it a comedy. We all agree that would be distasteful. Instead, the film employs gallows humor, a treatment of serious and painful subjects with humor.
But why even mix the two in the first place? Well, we think Roger Ebert said it best:
[Benigni] 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 other words, the comedy isn't there to lighten the horror—it's used more as a rhetorical weapon to argue against such atrocities.
A fable is a story that illustrates a moral or lesson. Usually, these kinds of stories have talking animals and a byline for some guy named Aesop, but those aren't requirements to be a card-carrying member of Team Fable.
The opening line of Life Is Beautiful firmly announces its placement on Team Fable: "This is a simple story but not an easy one to tell. Like a fable, there is sorrow, and, like a fable, it is full of wonder and happiness." Also like a fable, it's full of fantastical elements. Not talking foxes, but more like Guido's supreme luck, helping him in ways that are only possible in the movies.
This story wouldn't be possible in any film trying to describe the Holocaust as it actually was. But the film isn't trying to portray a realistic version of the Holocaust; instead, it's creating a hyper-realistic version of the Holocaust to get its lesson to the audience.
What lesson is that? Hint: you won't find it in a tacked-on sentence at the end of the story. Instead, look toward the film's title, Life Is Beautiful. In essence, the film's saying that life is beautiful despite all the world's evils, and Guido desperately tries to keep that idea alive for his little boy. Check out our "What's Up with the Title?" section for more on that.
A war drama is a film that uses war to drive its drama. To put that in a less obvious way, the plot, characters, and themes are all explored through the setting of a war; usually a historical war, but not necessarily.
Life Is Beautiful does this with World War II. Using the Holocaust as its subject, the film chooses to look at war through the perspective of civilians, showing how the consequences of war and its politics spread out beyond the battlefield to harm everyone in a society.
This movie deals with war, anti-Semitic attacks, systematic extermination of Jews, and the incalculable suffering humans can force upon each other. So why is it titled Life Is Beautiful? Is Roberto Benigni one of those postmodernist filmmakers who enjoys being ironic for irony's sake?
Not at all.
But before we get into why that's the case, a little history lesson's in order. Don't worry, it's not a boring lesson dealing with legislation or the agricultural developments of Mesopotamia. In fact, it has an assassin in it. Cool.
Time warp to Mexico in the 1940s. Leon Trotsky has been living in exile here for three years. Trotsky, you may recall, helped start the Russian Revolution of 1917 and was appointed the leader of the Red Army by Vladimir Lenin.
Internal conflicts in the Soviet government put Trotsky at odds with Joseph Stalin, and seeing as Stalin was a total dictator, those were bad odds indeed. He fled Russian in 1937 when Stalin decided enough was enough and set out to assassinate him (both politically and actually).
Trotsky knew either Stalin's assassins or his failing health would get him sooner rather than later, so in February 1940 he wrote a final testament to be published posthumously. He concluded his testament with the lines: "Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence and enjoy it to the full" (source).
On August 20, 1940, Ramon Mercader, a Russian undercover agent, snuck into Trotsky's study and bludgeoned him with an ice ax. Trotsky died a day later. (By the by, Trotsky's life is crazy-super interesting, and you can read more about it here).
So what was the point of this history lesson? Well, Benigni has directly cited Trotsky's words as inspiration for his film's title (source). And the parallels are clear.
Like Trotsky, death hangs over Guido. He's a Jewish man in a concentration camp who's forced into slave labor and given next to nothing to eat. If Guido can't work, he'll be executed. If he tries to escape, he'll be killed. If he works as he's told, he'll die of malnutrition or exposure. He might even be killed for no reason, because Nazis.
Life seems pretty grim at this point, yes?
Not for Guido.
Guido agrees with Trotsky and maintains that life is beautiful. As we saw in the first half of the film, this guy has some serious joie de vivre (that's French for "love of life").
This philosophy is the impulse that drives him to woo Dora, and it carries into the concentration camp, when he combines love with comedy to create a philosophy of resistance. Although he suffers, his suffering never destroys his humor or desire to live.
Echoing Trotsky's final testament, Guido believes that future generations will do better. He wants to keep Joshua safe and his innocence intact through the invention of the game. In fact, Joshua's make-believe game can be seen as an actual win against Fascism and hate by the movie's end—but that's a discussion for the "What's Up with the Ending?" section.
So, what's up with the title is that it is the ultimate message of the movie. Despite it all, life is beautiful.
It's time to toss those soggy tissues and open up a fresh box. We're diving back into the ending of Life Is Beautiful. While we're there, we're to going to ask ourselves what's up with the ending and then wonder why we're torturing ourselves with all these feels.
To start, let's do a quick recap of how things played out. After hiding all night in a…whatever that box thingy is, Joshua emerges to an empty camp. A tank rolls up, and an American soldier lifts the hatch to ask him how it's going. Joshua's stunned and shocked since, of course, he thinks this is the tank he won in Guido's make-believe game.
Riding with the American solider, Joshua spots his mother among the camp survivors. The soldier stops the tank, and Joshua runs into his mother's arms. The narrator, whom we haven't heard from in a while, pipes in to tell us: "This is my story. This is the sacrifice my father made. This was his gift to me."
Yep, the narrator was Joshua the whole time. Well, we say, "the whole time," but adult Joshua had, what, two lines of dialogue?
We learn what became of Joshua. As a child, Joshua doesn't understand the truth of the concentration camp; Guido's game worked to successfully hide the horrors of their situation. But as an adult, Joshua has come to realize the truth of what happened to him and his father. He's come to appreciate his father's supreme sacrifice as a "gift," something he's grateful for.
This line gives us the sense that he's adopted Guido's philosophy of life. That is, despite it all, that life is beautiful.
But adult Joshua doesn't get the final lines of the film. That honor goes to boy Joshua. As he and his mother reunite, the two embrace and have the following exchange:
JOSHUA: We won!
DORA: Yes, we won!
JOSHUA: A thousand points to laugh like crazy about! We came in first! We're taking the tank home! We won!
This final message of the film takes a little unpacking and outside knowledge. Life Is Beautiful was inspired by a Rubino Romeo Salmoni's memoir, titled In the End, I Beat Hitler (Source). In the memoir, Salmoni uses gallows humor to tell about his time in Auschwitz. His argument is that his ability to live and laugh proves that Hitler lost. Not only did Hitler not succeed in killing Salmoni, he couldn't even steal his love of life.
Although Guido didn't survive the camp, he succeeded in hiding the atrocities from his son. Also, Joshua and Dora managed to survive until the Americans liberated the camp. Joshua and Dora's victory over Hitler and fascism—through surviving and maintaining a love of life—is Guido's victory in life and death.
And that's what's up with the end of Life Is Beautiful.
Now, will someone please pass that tissue box?
Life Is Beautiful is the movie the PG-13 rating was made for. Okay, not literally. That honor goes to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But it's a movie that fits perfectly into that middle ground between PG and R. It's got way too much going on for the little ones, but teens and above can handle it. You might even argue that teens should see it.
The content of the film is mild by modern standards. Guido says he wants to make love to Dora a few times, some guy mentions a brothel, the violence is minimal and mostly implied, and we think they snuck in a German curse word or two. Actually, that's mild by Indiana Jones standards.
Where the movie takes a hard left is the subject matter. While the first half is a romantic comedy, the second half evokes gallows humor within the systematic, industrialized terror of the Nazi concentration camps. In one haunting scene, Guido carries his sleeping son through the fog and stumbles upon a mass of naked corpses heaped upon each other. It's more abstract than visceral, yet intense nonetheless.
Other difficult subjects include physical and mental suffering, ethnic hatred, and the murder of children and the elderly (again, implied and not shown). It's a lot for younger viewers to process, and honestly, it can be challenging for viewers of all ages. Yet, we think the rewards can be well worth it for the PG-13-and-above crowd.