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.
Call To Adventure
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.
Refusal Of The Call
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.
Meeting The Mentor
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.
Crossing The Threshold
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.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
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.
Approach To The Inmost Cave
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.
Reward (Seizing The Sword)
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.
The Road Back
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.
Return With The Elixir
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.