All you need is love. The Beatles sang it, so it must be true. Say what you will about George, but Paul wouldn't lie to us, right? And Life Is Beautiful agrees with the Beatles.
More than anything else, love connects the seemingly disparate romantic comedy and Holocaust drama parts of the story. Guido's story starts with a quest for the love of the beautiful and charming Dora. He succeeds thanks to his joie de vivre, his love of life, and a little bit of luck.
Several years later, Guido and his son, Joshua, are deported to a concentration camp for the crime of being Jewish (more on that in the "Prejudice" and "Warfare" sections). Because Guido loves his son and wants to hide the reality of the camp from him, he fabricates a story where what happens in the camp—the forced labor, the lack of food, the brutality of the guards—is just an elaborate game.
He suffers a lot trying to keep his son ignorant while he's living the reality of the camp. Out of love, he sacrifices everything.
Love, in this film, is why life is beautiful after all.
In this film, love equals self-sacrifice.
It's Joshua's love for his father that makes him believe that the whole extermination camp is one big game.
Movies with war as a theme typically focus on the experiences of soldiers and the battlefield. Just google "war movies," and you'll see what we mean. Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket, Black Hawk Down, the list goes on. While you can call Life Is Beautiful many things, "typical" isn't one of them. This is a movie about war, but it chooses to focus on war from a different perspective. Or, more to the point, the victim's perspective.
The first half shows the slow yet ever-encroaching dangers of war, subtly hidden within a love story. In fact, it's only with the hindsight of history that we, the audience, can see these dangers so plainly—like a hidden picture puzzle we've played before. The second half shows how the politics and hate that led to war result in unimaginable suffering.
And all ultimately for nothing since, as we already know, Italy and fascism lost the war.
Although Life Is Beautiful takes place during World War II, the world it presents is completely fictional and lacks much of the nuance of the socio-political landscape of Italy during those years. Hey, it's a movie.
The film uses World War II and the Holocaust to make an argument for the beauty of love and life. That ain't easy.
When you think of Guido in Life is Beautiful, chances are "power" isn't a word that springs to mind. His hair line recedes into wispy curls, his personality is clownish, and his muscle mass would make a peavine look burly in a side-by-side comparison. Seriously, the man looks like he needs a trellis to hold him up.
In many ways, though, Guido's a powerful man. His power doesn't come from strength, and he's got zero political clout or social standing—qualities men like Rodolfo and the soldiers have. Guido's power comes from his intelligence, his joy, and, perhaps most importantly, his willpower.
The man doesn't give up in his pursuit to woo Dora or his efforts to hide the horrors of the camp from his son. In both instances, his imagination and joy are his weapons. And while he can't change the world with this kind of power, he can use it to enrich the lives of those close to him. And that's something…powerful.
The camps are set up to show the inmates how powerless they really are.
The film suggests the power of love and life will survive the power of fascism.
Prejudice seems way too mild a term for what Nazi Germany did to Jews like Guido and other people it deemed "undesirables." Murderous, soulless hatred is more like it, but the beginning of it all was anti-Semitic prejudice.
The film doesn't make it immediately clear that prejudice will infect Guido's life. In fact, the first half of the film is a typical rom-com: boy meets cute girl, boy expresses love for cute girl in increasingly romantic (or potentially creepy) ways, girl falls in love with boy. Acts of prejudice foreshadowing the Holocaust are few and far between.
By the movie's second half, the racism of 1940s Italy is on full display. Here, Life Is Beautiful shows how those random acts of anti-Semitism gradually evolved to foster a policy that dehumanized some of its citizens.
Once Italian society saw the Jews as something less than human, it became easier to round them up like chattel, put them to work in the concentration camps, and kill them when they were too weak to be useful anymore.
Guido has no political or social power against such prejudice—it's state-sanctioned, after all. Even seemingly decent people like Oreste buy into the party line. Guido can only fight it with his wit and his love. How well those weapons truly work will depend on how you read the film in relation to history.
In order to whip up ethnic hatred against Jews, the fascist government in the film had to encourage the idea of Italian racial superiority.
Guido jokingly says he won't allow Visigoths into his store anymore. This is a playful jab at deep-seated nature of racial conflicts, since the Visigoths were a tribe that invaded the Roman Empire (read: Italy) between the 3rd and 5th centuries C.E. Jeez, Guido can sure hold a grudge.
Guido's got perseverance for days. Whatever he chooses to do, he's determined to succeed. Seriously, does this guy just have "Gonna Fly Now" playing on loop in his head? Well, we guess that's better than having "MMMBop" stuck in—dang, there it is. We're going to be hearing that all day now.
Torturous earworms aside, the idea of perseverance is introduced in Life is Beautiful as willpower. Guido shows this time and again. He wins the love of Dora and protects his son in the concentration camp. Other characters show perseverance, too, but not always in ways as benevolent as Guido. Looking your way, Dr. Lessing.
Perseverance isn't always a good thing, especially if what you're relentless about is persecuting and murdering people.
Guido's perseverance in keeping up the pretense of a game for his little son is, well…we can't even.