BLU-RAY Life Is Beautiful
Think back, if you will, to the 1999 Academy Awards and you may have vague memories of a crazed Italian man stumbling over people’s seats and running up and down the aisles, whilst the Hollywood elite gave their blessing through rapturous applause. The man was Roberto Benigni, Italy’s premier comedian. The reason for his impassioned tomfoolery was that his film, Life Is Beautiful, won three of its seven Oscar nominations – including Best Actor and Best Foreign Language Film. For a non-English film, it was certainly an impressive achievement. Now, fifteen years after its initial release, Studiocanal have released Life Is Beautiful as a Special Edition Blu-ray.
In the years preceding the Second World War, Guido Orefice (Benigni), a larger-than-life Jewish-Italian, arrives in the town of Arezzo with the ambition of establishing his own book shop. However, an imbroglio with the fascist town clerk delays things; ending with the man quite literally getting egg on his face. In the meantime, Guido takes a job as a waiter at his uncle Elesio’s (Giustino Durano) hotel.
Whilst this is goes on, Guido strikes up an unusual relationship with a school teacher named Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), built on a series of chance meetings. Guido becomes infatuated with her and initiates further ‘chance’ meetings through mischievous and humorous planning. Dora starts to reciprocate Guido’s feelings, but the problem is that she’s due to be married to the same town clerk that Guido so spectacularly irked earlier on. Nevertheless, Dora chooses Guido, standing the clerk up at their extravagant engagement party, and the new couple get married and have a child together.
Years have passed and Guido’s son, Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini), is now 5 years old. Arezzo has also changed, now in the final months of the war, with the tone somewhat more dour than the carefree Italiana of yesteryear. Guido’s bookstore is daubed with anti-Jewish graffiti and the following day sees Guido, Joshua and uncle Eliseo snatched from their home and herded onto a train headed straight for a concentration camp. Dora, from a wealthy non-Jewish family, is safe from Nazi persecution, but she insists that they take her with them.
At the camp, the men and women are separated. To ease Joshua’s concerns, too young to fully comprehend their situation, Guido and Elesio tell him that they are here to play a game, whereby the first person to get 1,000 points wins the top prize: a tank. Guido’s lies may be the only thing that keeps the child alive as their situation worsens…
To many critics, the idea of making the last century’s most abhorrent act of evil a venue for light-hearted comedy is patently wrong, and who could disagree? Let it be said, though, that this is not the function of Benigni’s film. This is not necessarily a tale about war, or even the holocaust for that matter, but about the lengths a parent will go to preserve their child’s innocence. In this regard, Life Is Beautiful is admirable and, for the record, its controversial setting is handled with sensitivity and respect.
Guido’s protective nature is established early on, first by placating his son, who is confused about the anti-Semitic shop signs proclaiming that Jews are not welcome to enter. When they are first rounded up by the Nazis and transported to the train station, Guido convinces Joshua that he has staged the whole event as a surprise for his birthday and that they can’t miss the train lest it ruin further surprises, setting the precedent for further fabrications. Incidentally, 5-year-old Giorgio Cantarini (who would later pop up in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2002) as the son of Russell Crowe’s Maximus) easily gives one of the better child performances of the 1990s.
It is a film of two halves. The first is fashioned out of whimsy, intricately interwoven situational and slapstick comedy, as well as excellent characterisation. There is also a touch of fairytale about it, particularly when happenstance aligns previously unrelated comedic coincidences to create a magical evening of courtship for Guido and Dora.
Benigni – as director – handles the tetchier and more traumatic subject matter through suggestion.
Braschi (Benigni’s wife in real life also) is fine throughout, although she gets the back seat treatment during the second half. Benigni gives a warm and energetic performance, although his extravert clowning may prove tiresome to some. His physicality and slender frame, especially when clothed in his hotel uniform, is reminiscent of Chaplin, Keaton and the like. He reigns it in somewhat for the second half, which adopts a noticeably drearier tone. He still gets to exercise his comedy prowess in this more controversial setting, but with comparatively more restraint and subtlety. The standout being when a Nazi officer enters their dorm room to recite the camp’s rules. Guido volunteers as translator, turning the officer’s German orders for obedience into the rules of the game that Joshua must play in order to win the tank.
Benigni – as director – handles the tetchier and more traumatic subject matter through suggestion. A mass murder via the gas chamber is realised by only showing the scenes that bookend the event. The first sees the elderly and those incapable of work undress in the shower block changing room, hanging their clothes on hooks. The second sees the clothes in a large pile, with the female prisoners sorting through them. The presence of the Nazi military is also downplayed, re-enforcing this as a story about civilians, not the war itself.
The overall objective, it seems, is for the bittersweet; a touching drama where the human spirit can prevail over the most grim of circumstances. Benigni certainly excels at the ‘sweet’ – if anything, he perhaps offers too much of the stuff – but the ‘bitter’ just about eludes him. His grasp of tear-jerking is not as strong as his penchant for mischief, meaning that the film’s dramatic side feels cut off at the knees. Guido is rarely put in a position where he has to truly face the stark reality of slaving in a labour camp, save for one moment when he has a fleeting encounter with a pile of bodies in a misty courtyard. The security and overall repression feels unrealistically lax; like ruling with an oven glove as opposed to an iron fist. Guido pretty much has free reign to move around the site to employ his quick-witted improvisational skills in the name of maintaining the lie for his son, and most likely for himself as well (at one point, he lets himself into an office to jovially speak to his wife over the camp’s loud speaker with absolutely no repercussions). It ultimately trivialises his whole situation, a situation whose horrors are already hugely toned down. Surely his need to lie and protect Joshua from the truth would mean more if there was a stronger sense of peril or consequence?
Studiocanal’s Blu-ray presentation makes for a decent upgrade over any standard definition counterpart. The print is clean, with only a few minor damage blemishes present. Clarity is good, but the overall picture has a soft quality to it, making the film appear much older than it actually is, although this may have been an intentional decision. Sound is also clear, with Nicola Piovanni’s Oscar-winning musical score riding high in the mix.
Despite some easy-to-spot flaws, it’s surprising that Life Is Beautiful is as successful as it is. Many deficiencies are smoothed over by strong characterisations and a solid cast, with the relationship between Guido and his son acting as the centre-piece that just about holds it all together. Sentimental and saccharine? Most definitely, but the film’s multiple subtleties and its ridiculously positive outlook on life are strangely infectious.
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