Buckle up, buttercup.
To properly discuss Dora's character, we're going deep into rom-com territory, a place so sugary sweet that it makes Candy Land look like a well-balanced dietary romp. But we have to go there: in the film's first half, Dora serves mainly as the love interest character.
Even if you've only seen a rom-com in passing, you know what to expect here. She starts the film with a "meet cute," in which she literally falls into Guido's arms from out of a barn. During this scene, we get to see a bit of her personality. She's kind and good-natured when it comes to Guido's clownishness. She's also generous, offering to repay him for helping her defy gravity's plans.
Girls Just Wanna Have Fun
Later, we learn Dora's dating Rodolfo, that jerk from town hall who refused to sign Guido's application to open a bookstore. Here, she exhibits another trait for the rom-com love interest: She's dating the wrong guy.
How do we know he's the wrong guy for her? This question gets us to the core of Dora's character, and the reason we know she and Guido will end up together forever. The answer: She has a love of life and all its beauty. Guido also exhibits this trait; Rodolfo, eh, not so much.
We can tell this about Rodolfo after he and Dora leave the opera.
DORA: Can we get a chocolate ice cream?
RODOLFO: Yes, but we'll have to be quick.
RODOLFO: We have to be at the Prefect's at eight. We were invited to dinner.
RODOLFO: At the Prefect's.
DORA: Have pity on me, Lord. Let it not be true. Another dinner at the Prefect's?
Dora wants to go out, have fun, and do something childish like enjoy a late-night ice cream. Rodolfo would rather go to a boring dinner at the boring Prefect's house to help his boring career.
Guido, on the other hand, openly invites the idea of going to get ice cream. Both Dora and her would-be love exhibit a love of childlike behaviors and wonder—a characteristic the film uses to link them to their son and all people who have a zest for life.
Granted, in true rom-com fashion, Guido's methods of winning Dora's love are a little, um, stalker-y. Following her around, asking her on dates while she's at work, kidnapping her in his car and driving off. Yeah, in real life, these are not the ways to a woman's heart.
But in the context of this film, these actions show Dora and Guido as compatible. Both enjoy the adventures life can bring with a dash of spontaneity and luck to flavor.
In the end, Dora chooses Guido as her life love (again, rom-com formula for the win). At her engagement party, she starts to see Rodolfo for what he really is—an uncaring socialite. She crawls under the table (again, notice the childish behavior being equated with a love of life) and asks Guido to take her away.
And he does.
Sure, he's on a horse spray-painted green, but you work with what you've got. Riding off together, the two live happily ever after.
Well, in a traditional rom-com, it totally would be happily ever after. But Life Is Beautiful still has a whole other half to go.
Years later, Dora and Guido are married, and they have a son named Joshua. During Joshua's birthday party, government officials come to take Guido, Joshua, and Eliseo away to the concentration camp. Rushing to the train station before they're deported, Dora argues with the commanding officer that there's been some kind of mistake:
DORA: My husband and son are on that train.
OFFICER: What's your husband's name?
DORA: Guido Orefice.
OFFICER: Joshua Orefice…and Eliseo Orefice are on that train, too. There's no mistake.
DORA: I want to get on that train too.
In this scene, we see the other side of Dora's character. Not only does she play the love interest—she represents love itself. In the first half, it was Guido's romantic love and a love of life. Here, Dora pivots to represent the love of family, and she uses that devotion as an act of sacrifice and rebellion against the tyranny of the Nazi agenda.
Think about it: she doesn't have to get on that train. As a gentile Italian citizen, she's protected from being deported. In fact, her getting on that train really doesn't do anything substantial, since she's separated from her family as soon as they arrive.
But out of love, a desire to keep her family together, and an act of protest against the injustice she's witnessing, she chooses to get on the train. It's a powerful moment.
For the rest of the film, we don't see much of Dora. We check in with her occasionally as Guido finds inventive ways to send his love to her by way of intercom and phonograph. But at the very end of the film, her sacrifice pays off as she's reunited with her beloved son.
Dora doesn't know yet what Guido did to keep Joshua alive and hopeful. But we don't think she'll be surprised when she finds out.