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).
Life Is Beautiful
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.