How to explain Guido? Good question.
He's a weird guy but also kind of an everyman. He works as a waiter but is incredibly intelligent…and a childish clown. He's not a fighter, but he's willing to stand up for those he loves against incredible odds.
He's also super, crazy, incredibly lucky.
Seriously, what are we supposed to do with all this? Well, if we had to focus Guido's hodgepodge of personality into a single phrase, we'd say he's a man who loves life and sees the incredible beauty and value in living it to the fullest.
The first half of the film sets this up. It's a classic rom-com formula: boy meets girl, girl's in love with a different dude, boy goes to extraordinary lengths to prove his love, boy and girl get together. And the rom-com is the perfect story structure to show how beautiful life can be.
After all, is life ever more beautiful than when you're in the throes of new love? Well, maybe when you're absolutely dominating the office March Madness pool. But other than that, definitely new love.
We see Guido's love of life and people all over the film's first half. Exhibit A is the scene where Dora falls out of the barn into his arms:
GUIDO: Good morning, Princess!
DORA: How frightening. I almost killed myself. Did I hurt you?
GUIDO: I've never been better. Do you always leave the house like this?
Notice how he just goes with the flow, makes a joke of the experience, and even takes the opportunity to flirt with Dora a little. (Hey, beautiful women don't literally fall into your arms every day, do they? Seriously, do they?)
Exhibit B is the scene where Guido and Ferruccio first arrive in the city. You can see how stoked they are, just wandering its streets and piazzas, enjoying their new home.
Guido's love of people goes hand in hand with his zeal for life. For example, he has very different political views from Oreste, who's a nationalist Nazi sympathizer, but he still manages to get along with him. In fact, the only person Guido doesn't get along with in the first half is Rodolfo.
In Guido's defense, it's real hard to make friends after stealing a man's fiancé and then accidently egging the guy.
Subtlety isn't something Guido is interested in when he sees something he wants:
GUIDO: Oh, uh…I forgot to tell you.
GUIDO: That I want to make love to you so badly…you would not believe how badly. Not just once but over and over. But I'd never admit it to anyone, most of all to you. They would have to torture me to make me admit it.
At this point, Dora hardly knows Guido, but that doesn't stop him from professing his love and lust. He's incapable of being inauthentic. This makes it even more heartbreaking when you think about what he had to suppress in order to keep Joshua in the dark about what was really happening in the camp.
In Shakespeare's plays, there's a tradition that the court jester or fool character is actually the smartest cat in the room. Using their quick wits and sly tongues, these professional clowns outsmart all the other characters, including those in high society who look down on them. Typically, they also teach valuable moral lessons through their playful antics and jokes.
There's the fool from King Lear, who's originally named the Fool. Then there's Feste from Twelfth Night and Puck from A Midsummer's Night's Dream. And we can now add Guido Orefice to this Shakespearean tradition.
We can tell Guido's quick-witted from the start. He's always closely watching what goes on around him, sizing up the situation and using it to his advantage.
We get a sense of just how intelligent he is in his first scene with Dr. Lessing. Walking up to Lessing's table, Guido promptly exclaims, "Obscurity." It's the answer to a riddle, and Lessing is impressed—Guido managed to solve it in five minutes, where it took the good doctor eight days.
Guido goes into super-Shakespeare fool mode when he visits the school to flirt with Dora. Pretending to be an official from the government, he's expected to deliver a race manifesto proclaiming that the Aryan race is superior to all others. Thinking quick, Guido goes for it:
GUIDO: Naturally! Our race is superior. I've just come from Rome, right this minute to come and tell you in order that you'll know, children, that our race is a superior one. I was chosen, I was, by racist Italian scientists in order to demonstrate how superior our race is. Why did they pick me, children? [Jumps up onto the table.] Must I tell you? Where can you find someone more handsome than me?
Since Guido's Jewish, he obviously doesn't buy this superior race argument. Rather than give a lecture, he uses humor to subversively deliver a counterargument.
Since race is based on external, immutable properties of a person, Guido uses his own body parts to show Italian superiority, specifically his left ear and his belly button. Of course, it's ridiculous to assume superiority based on a tight belly button, but that's really no different than making the same claim over skin color, eye color, or anything else.
That's the whole point—and like Shakespeare's fools, Guido never has to come out and say it because he's wrapped up his argument in a nice bit of stand-up comedy.
When the film's second half begins, Guido and Dora are married and have a son named Joshua. As they prepare for Joshua's sixth birthday, Guido and the boy are taken by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp; Dora insists on getting on the train, too, even though, as a non-Jew, she wouldn't have been deported. At the camp, Dora's separated from Guido and Joshua and sent to the women's side of the camp.
Thinking quickly, Guido decides to tell his son that the whole experience is a game. It'll be a tough game, but if they can earn 1,000 points, Joshua will win a tank. Joshua's pretty stoked about that, even if the place they have to play isn't too comfortable.
To keep up the façade, Guido must use his smarts and playfulness to convince Joshua that the horrible things he's seeing are either elaborate jokes, opponents' strategies, or a part of the game's rules. For example, when Joshua plays with the other children, they tell him there's no tank prize. Guido responds: "Did you fall for that? They're as sly as foxes. They want to beat you! Are you joking? There's no tank? Don't you believe them!"
In one heartbreaking example, Joshua hears a man crying that they make buttons and soap out of the prisoners. Guido tells him:
GUIDO: You fell for that? Again? I thought you were a sharp boy, cunning, intelligent. Buttons and soap out of people? That'll be the day. You believed that? Just imagine. Tomorrow morning, I wash my hands with Bartolomeo, a good scrub. Then I'll button up with Francesco. Oh. [A button pops off.] Darn it all. Look! I just lost Giorgio.
In this scene particularly, you can see the stress Guido's enduring to keep up the façade while also living with the reality of the camp himself. He knows they could both die at any moment.
So what's going on here? Simply put, Guido's trying to protect his son. However, this isn't the type of movie where a lone hero can fight off the Nazi army with only his fists and grit. Even if it were, Guido isn't packing a rockin' haymaker anyway.
Instead, he protects his son with the only weapons available to him: comedy and wits (source). The same gifts he used to earn Dora's love he now turns into weapons of private rebellion against the Nazis. While the Nazis want to break his son's spirit before killing him, Guido does all he can to keep his son safe and his spirit innocent.
Viva la Revolution
Guido's story may seem like two separate tales told in a single movie.
- War story
But the connective tissue between the two together is Guido's love of life.
In the first half, Guido uses his love of life to reinvigorate Dora's; in the second half, he uses it to help his son stay hopeful and innocent in the face of the horrors of the Holocaust.
Unfortunately for Guido, things don't end as well for him in the war story half. With enemy forces closing in, the Nazis decide to abandon the camp and hide the evidence of their crimes, including killing the remaining prisoners.
Guido has Joshua hide in a box and tells his son that this is the final night of the game. If he can stay hidden, they win the game. Guido then goes to search the women's side of the camp for Dora, but he's caught by a Nazi guard.
The guard marches him past the box Joshua's hiding in, and Guido decides on one last act of comedic rebellion. Winking at Joshua, he does a silly goose step march, sharing one final laugh with his son.
It's all a game.
Except it isn't.
The guard returns alone from around the corner.
Think about it: Guido knows he's marching to his own death, but it's not what he's thinking about at that instant. He doesn't want his little boy to see him get shot, and everything he's been trying to do since arriving at the camp is about to be undone. So in his last moments, he keeps up a silly face and a playful demeanor for the sake of the child hiding inside the box.
Maybe Guido could have talked his way out of trouble yet again. But we'll never know. Instead of being concerned about his own life, he sacrifices it to save his son's innocence—and his life. And that's just about the biggest expression of love you can ever imagine.
As the final moments of the movie show us, little Joshua never realizes the truth. When he sees the tank of the liberating American forces, the boy's astounded and assumes it's the prize that his father promised. His final narrative line suggests that he only realized the truth of his situation later: "This is my story. This is the sacrifice my father made. This was his gift to me."
The Nazis kill Guido. You might think he's lost his personal war, and in one sense you'd be right. But in a symbolic way, Guido's the winner here. He does what he hoped to do: not to save his own life but to save his family and protect his son.
When the Americans finally arrive to liberate the camp, Joshua still believes that love, actually, is all around us—er…life is beautiful.