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.
Romancing the Clone
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.
Hard Left Turn
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.