We've got to give Roberto Benigni props. When he makes a movie, he knows what kind of movie he wants to make, and he sets about doing it. If that means casting a middle-aged man as Pinocchio or centering a story on a guy who likes to steal bananas, then so be it.
Of Benigni's initial films, Il Mostro is perhaps the best of example of this. Directed in 1994, the film's a comedy about mistaken identity as the cops suspect a gardener as the prime suspect in serial killer case. Benigni wrote, directed, and starred in the film, and it was the first film he created under his own production company, Melampo Cinematografica.
For Life Is Beautiful, Benigni went the same route. He wrote the script, starred in the film, and took on the role of director. It was also produced by his production company in collaboration with Cecchi Gori Group.
The takeaway? Benigni likes to wear many creative hats. These are his films—his expression of art or life or a particular philosophy.
Much like his past work, Life Is Beautiful is a comedy—despite taking place in one of the most tragic periods in human history. But to say it is a Holocaust comedy—as in making jokes at the expense of the Holocaust—would be inaccurate. The film treats the inhumanity of the Holocaust as a tragedy and does so with all the seriousness the subject matter deserves. Benigni just uses his comedic talents to present a life-affirming message within that tragedy.
That's because Benigni's inspiration to use comedy as a way to present a philosophy comes from Big Deal Comedian Charlie Chaplin. Benigni has said so himself, but even if he'd kept his lips sealed, his admiration for Chaplin would be pretty obvious.
From flipping over a chair to that silly Nazi march, Benigni's brand of physical comedy is classic Chaplin, most notably drawing from his character the Little Tramp. Even his directorial techniques are Chaplin-esque—not a lot of visual flourishes, favoring a locked down camera that lets the action and comedy speak for itself.
Then there's The Dictator, Chaplin's 1940 film about a Jewish barber who looks an awful lot like a dictator who looks an awful lot like Adolf Hitler. (It's that dinky little moustache.) In Chaplin's film, identities are mixed up, hilarity ensues, and it ends on a life-affirming message about the potential betterment of humanity.
Chaplin released the film as an argument against Hitler and fascism at a time when America hadn't completely renounced Hitler's regime. Nor, we might add, had the full horrors of the Holocaust been revealed to the world. In fact, Chaplin once said that he couldn't have made The Dictator had the full extent of the Holocaust been known (source).
Like Chaplin, Benigni uses comedy to make a point. As Benigni notes, "the crux of the matter is to reach beauty, poetry, it doesn't matter if that is comedy or tragedy. They're the same if you reach the beauty" (source).
Would Chaplin have agreed that Benigni managed to find a way to balance satire with the tragedy of the Holocaust? Obviously, we can't say. But on the point of beauty and filmmaking, we imagine he'd agree with his impressive student.
You're probably wondering, "What kind of writer would think to add comedic elements to a Holocaust film?" The answer is someone like Roberto Benigni, who wrote the screenplay for Life Is Beautiful. Thing is, there's nobody out there who's like Benigni. He's one of a kind.
See, even at a young age, Benigni was drawn to comedy. Originally, his family wanted him to go into the priesthood, and he was sent to Florence to study. Then, in 1964, a flood hit the city, and the place was evacuated. Back home, he went to see a circus and found it more appealing than the priesthood. [Insert obvious joke here.] His mother took notice and suggested he become an entertainer (source).
Benigni began theater acting in 1972 and became famous in Italy in the late '70s for his comedic television roles. In L'altra Domenica, for example, he played a film critic so lazy that he never watched the movies he critiqued. The '80s and early '90s saw him move into Italian and American movies. Most notably he starred in three films directed by Jim Jarmusch and in Son of the Pink Panther.
During this time, Benigni also started his fruitful collaborations with writer Vincenzo Cerami, whom you eagle-eyed Shmoopers may have noticed is given a screenwriting credit on Life Is Beautiful. These two also worked together on Il Piccolo Diavolo, Jonny Stecchino, and Il Mostro (source).
So Benigni worked as a comedian for most of his career, although serious roles weren't unknown to him (La Voce Della Luna, anyone?). So it's little wonder that Benigni would use comedy to express his philosophy in Life Is Beautiful, even given the serious subject matter.
While writing, Benigni drew inspiration from Rubino Romeo Salmoni's memoir, In the End, I Beat Hitler. Salmoni's work used irony and gallows humor to describe his experiences in Auschwitz, using humor to show that he triumphed over Hitler, not the other way around.
As Salmoni put it: "I'm still here, hale and hearty. I came out of Auschwitz alive, I have a wonderful family, I celebrated my golden wedding anniversary, I have 12 splendid grandchildren—I think I can say I ruined Hitler's plan for me" (source).
This was the spirit that Benigni brought to the script of Life Is Beautiful. With that said, Benigni's comedy is more physical and lighthearted than what's typically associated with irony and gallows humor, and Benigni used this type of comedy when approaching the tragedy of the Holocaust.
Whether he succeeded or not will be a question any viewer of Life Is Beautiful should ask themselves. But give the guy credit for trying something very different (and risky) with this script.
Speaking of different and risky, even the exuberant and quirky Guido is no match for the real deal.
There are horror stories in the filmmaking industry: bleak tales of men in suits sent from depths of the studio. Wielding focus group feedback and current trends like machetes, they hack into the scripts and creative choices of their filmmakers. If the director struggles, she'll find no recourse except to quit in protest. This is the curse of studio interference, and it hath befallen many a film.
Lucky for Roberto Benigni, Life Is Beautiful avoided this terrible fate. The film was produced by Gianluigi Braschi and Elda Ferri under the helm of production companies Melampo Cinematografica and Cecchi Gori Group.
The former, btw, is Benigni's very own production company, established in 1994 with his wife, Nicoletta Braschi. Yeah, it's easy to tell the suits to take a leap when they're your minions.
As Benigni's production company, Melampo Cinematografica exclusively produces his creative works. Its first film, The Monster, was written and directed by Benigni, and its second film was the Academy Award-winning Life Is Beautiful, also written and directed by Benigni.
Its other Benigni projects include Pinocchio, The Tiger and the Snow, and several of the actor's life stage performances. To boil this all down: Benigni writes the scripts, Benigni directs the films, Benigni owns the production company, Benigni does what he wants.
You got a problem with that? Take it up with Benigni.
Cecchi Gori Group, on the other hand, is a little more difficult to pin down. Between 1987 and 2003, it produced more than one hundred films with a focus on producing and promoting Italian films by Italian filmmakers. Among those is Il Postino, a gem of a film that was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
And since Benigni's an Italian filmmaker, it's a perfect match.
Cecchi Gori Group also handled distribution of Hollywood films in Italy and dabbled in producing in Hollywood, too. It was one of the seven other production companies credited on Freddy vs. Jason, a movie that might have benefitted by the curse of studio interference (or just any curse, really).
Although released in 1997, Life Is Beautiful feels like a movie made in another time and place. The camera angles, the editing, the framing, the way jokes are shot—all of it feels like it belongs to a bygone era of cinema.
Our current theory is that the film was actually created in 1958, but a temporal vortex opened immediately upon the film's completion and teleported the only extant copy into Roberto Benigni's arms. We theorize that this same temporal vortex is responsible for taking Britpop music from 1997 to…wherever it is now.
Think about it: the film feels like something released in the classical era. It doesn't use computer effects, which every movie since the late '90s is contractually obligated to have. It doesn't feature that awful "orange and teal" color palette. And it doesn't have a soundtrack courtesy of whatever pop song was currently trending.
What makes Life Is Beautiful feel so classic? Its editing style, for one thing. In his must-read textbook Film Art: An Introduction, David Bordwell draws readers' attention to what he calls "intensified continuity." We'll bow out for a moment and let the professor explain the phenomenon in his own words:
Most obviously, mainstream films are now cut much faster than in the period between 1930 and 1960. Then, a film typically consisted of 300–500 shots, but in the years after 1960, the cutting pace picked up. Today a two-hour film might have over 2,000 shots, and action films routinely contain 3,000 or more. The average shot in The Bourne Ultimatum lasts about two seconds. (Source)
Seriously, Shmoop had to take Dramamine before watching The Bourne Ultimatum.
Life Is Beautiful definitely fits into the 1930–1960 category. If you'd like an example, just consider the scene where Guido and Ferruccio wreck the car at the film's beginning. From when we see the car to when the title appears on screen, one minute and 25 seconds elapse. In that time, there is a total of 19 shots, or one shot approximately every 4.5 seconds.
Now compare this Hot Fuzz, an action-comedy from 2007 done in the modern style. Its final car chase is two minutes long, but contains a whopping 90 shots, averaging out to a shot every 1.3 seconds.
At least, we think it does. Honestly, it was difficult to count the hosts as the images flew furiously into our eyeballs. Still, even if we missed some, that would only further cement our point.
Now, if we're being honest, we stacked the deck a bit in our favor. Hot Fuzz is designed to satirize the modern action flicks, especially those of filmmakers such as Michael Bay. As such, its editing is supercharged to the point of absurdity.
Yet in making fun of this style, Hot Fuzz still proves the point. The editing of modern films feels like jumping feet first into the mind of a five-year-old boy whose diet consists of Pixy Stix downed with Red Bull. Images and ideas are processed at the very limits of consciousness, and even your subconscious is like, "Wait, what's going on? Slow down!"
In contrast, Life Is Beautiful takes it slow.
The editing follows the beats of conversations mostly, and shots are allowed to linger longer than they would in a modern film.
The opening car scene has an extended shot dedicated to Ferruccio reciting a poem expressing his love of life (even the camera on the hood looks old timey). This shot doesn't end until the brakes go out, and then we cut away to be introduced to Guido. And that's followed by an extended single shot of the car careening off the road and into the forest—a shot that would take several more shots in a Bourne film.
You should also consider the scene where Guido "explains" the camp rules by translating the Nazi soldier's German. Here, the camera mostly just watches Guido and the Nazi solider talking and occasionally we get a cut to Joshua's reaction. Rather than having the editing pace the film, the jokes and performances do the heavy work, and the scene's suspense and humor are built from the situation itself.
If life is so beautiful, why rush it?
Another example of the film's classical inspiration is in the framing and cinematography. Again, let's have Bordwell set things up for us:
Partly because of the faster editing, scenes are built out of relatively close views of individual characters, rather than long-shot framings. […] Also, the camera tends to move very frequently, picking out one detail after another. (Source)
Again, Life Is Beautiful bucks the modern trend, preferring a more classical approach. In this case, the filmmakers' inspiration was clearly back-in-the-day comedy masters like Charlie Chaplin.
The scene where Guido is sneaking into the women's side of the concentration camp will help us illustrate this point. Here, a spotlight swings across an open courtyard. Once it has left, Guido sidles across a wall, but the spotlight comes back into frame. Guido leaps up and grabs a piece of protruding pipe, lifting himself, and his skirt, just as the spotlight passes beneath him.
Pretty simple setup, but what makes it stand out is how it's shot. There isn't a single edit or close up. The scene is framed in a long shot, and all the action takes place in a single shot.
This is the exact opposite of what Bordwell is talking about with modern filmmaking—no close views, no camera movements, and all the details are contained within the frame. It's reminiscent of old timey comedies, which had to rely on staging the action with a single-mounted camera.
For comparison, consider this scene from Chaplin's Modern Times. In fact, Chaplin's scene has more camera movement than Benigni's, but both fit within Bordwell's more classical continuity.
And these qualities are why we think Life Is Beautiful came to us through a temporal vortex. Can you think of any other possible explanation for why Life is Beautiful might eschew such modern movie modes of production?
We didn't think so.
Nicola Piovani has more than 130 film scores to his name, has won some of the most prestigious awards for his compositions, and has been nominated for practically all the rest.
So why is it that most people have never heard of this guy? Is he some kind of musical gnome, showing up to the studio in the night and leaving fully-formed compositions to be found by the filmmakers the next morning?
The truth is a tad less fantastical than that (sadness). The movie industry is notoriously focused on the Hollywood scene, and with the possible exception of directors, professionals who work exclusively in foreign industries tend to get short shrift.
Case in point: in 2000, Piovani's work on Life Is Beautiful was nominated for a Grammy for Best Score but lost to Randy Newman's score for A Bug's Life.
Are you kidding us? A Bug's Life? That's criminal neglect right there, Shmoopers.
Piovani has worked almost exclusively on Italian films. Notables include The Voice of the Moon, The Perfume of the Lady in Black, A Leap in the Dark, The Night of the Shooting Stars, and Kaos. All are worth a google, but we've got to give a nod to Piovani's work in Kaos. Here's a sample of that awesomeness.
But if you're going to start studying Piovani's work, then his score for Life Is Beautiful is where it's at. It's his most well-known score, nabbing him an Academy Award for Best Music. The score also marks one of several collaborations with Roberto Benigni, including Pinocchio and The Tiger and the Snow.
What makes Life Is Beautiful's score so pivotal in such prolific composer's career? For starters, it's a sublime example of classical scoring, perfectly matching the film's classic design and movie-making philosophy. Using orchestral music, it engages the viewers' emotions so that they vicariously feel what the characters on screen do.
Consider the track "Buon Giorno Principessa" (Good Morning, Princess). The composition opens with a harp before an organ and clarinet lightly join in. Further winds and strings join as it continues, but the euphonic sound remains soft and inviting. Eventually, the orchestra picks up to a resounding crescendo before settling back down and exiting on the same arrangement we started with.
Obviously, the track is connected to Dora, being named after Guido's pet phrase for her. This character connection also connects the music to the film's theme of love. It's light and airy without any heavy, earthy percussion bringing the sound down.
But it also has elements of excitement and effusive joy bursting out of it—just listen to that crescendo. This track puts us into Guido's emotional state, and we feel the love Guido feels for Dora. Through the music, we see her as he does.
Then there's "La vita è bella" (Life Is Beautiful). Borrowing the film's title, the track encompasses the philosophy of the whole movie.
The composition opens with an upbeat guitar and piano combo before moving into the winds. In the background, we can hear a shaker instrument, giving the composition a party-like vibe. It's happy and jovial and inviting with parts that feel like something you would dance to. Even that final cymbal that ends the piece is playful.
This composition perfectly encapsulates the idea that life is meant to be enjoyed, and at the same time it helps us see the world through Guido's eyes. If this is the song this guy has playing in head all the time, no wonder he's so chipper.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have "La notte di fuga" (The Night of Escape). The opening statement enters with foreboding violins and that heavy percussion that was missing from the previous tracks.
As track continues, you can hear "La Vita è Bella" playing lightly in the background, but it's being suppressed by the heavier instruments. As the composition continues, the sounds deepen, and there's a woodblock that sounds like something running through the forest at night.
The composition plays the night where Guido plans to make his escape. The heavier sounds illustrate both the danger at hand and also the oppressive force of death brought by the Nazis (note that drums are often used to denote militarism in movies scores).
The inclusion of "La Vita è Bella" underscores the battle between the philosophy that life is beautiful and the philosophy of death and despair at the heart of the Holocaust. The night of the escape is the moment in the film when those two philosophies come to the climax of their conflict.
Unfortunately, at this point in the movie, the philosophy of life is being suppressed, hence why "La Vita è Bella" is so suffocated by heavier statements.
Of course, there are several other compositions in Piovani's Life Is Beautiful score. Go ahead and give them a listen yourself and see if you can determine how the music helps to elevate the emotions and themes of the move for you. If nothing else, the exercise is sure to give you an appreciate of Piovani's art, making you wonder how he lost that Grammy to Newman.
Seriously, what is it with Newmans?
When we think of fandoms, our minds usually picture pop culture cabals that celebrate their beloved interest with some serious zeal. We're talking Harry Potter fans that play in actual Quidditch leagues, Star Trek fans that say their wedding vows in Klingon, cosplayers that fancy it up at every convention, and those fan-fiction writers who spill
gallons of ink miles of binary code on fanfiction.net.
Fun fact: the longest work of fiction ever written is a Super Smash Bros. fan fiction. Titled The Subspace Emissary's Worlds Conquest, it is 3,548,615 words long. That's six times longer than War and Peace (source).
Okay, back to the task at hand.
Given that Life Is Beautiful deals with the Holocaust, it's no wonder that the film hasn't amassed this type of fandom. But it does have its fan base, and that's, uh, people who like good films.
Life Is Beautiful was nominated for seven Academy Awards, three BAFTA Awards, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, and two awards at the 1998 AFI Fest. It was also nominated for best foreign film at national competitions from Japan to Spain to Australia.
That's a lotta love, and the film won a fair share of those awards, among them the Grand Jury Prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. We'd say it's probably a good thing Roberto Benigni didn't win them all, or he'd have no more room in his house for anything but awards.
The film's also been praised for its willingness to tackle a subject as difficult as the Holocaust in such a unique way. It's a mainstay on lists counting down the best Holocaust films (see here and here). It's even received praise from Holocaust historians and survivors.
Marcia Josephy, president of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, called it "a serious comedy that pays tribute to art as resistance and to the indomitable human spirit." And Abraham Foxman, a member of the Anti-Defamation League and Holocaust survivor himself, said audiences will "walk away with a deeper understanding of the human dimension of the tragedy" (source).
That's some serious respect from a tough audience. If people who know the worst of the Holocaust can see the benefit of the film, Benigni must have done something very right.