Study Guide

Life Is Beautiful Production Design

Production Design

Classic Comedy Style

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.

A Cut Above the Rest

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?

Time for Your (Not So) Close Up

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.

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