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.