War is a terrible thing, more so if you are involved in it against your will. Such is the situation with the Holocaust in World War 2, millions upon millions affected and/or killed as a result of Hitler’s War.
Starting off in pre-war Italy, Life Is Beautiful is a film of two parts. The first sees director and star Roberto Benigni playing a liberal Jew called Guido, a fun loving man who talks a lot and is not averse to quips, puns and other bits of japery. Through his fun loving attitude he woos Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni’s real world wife) and they have a son together.
The increasing tensions of the war build slowly. It starts subtly, anti-semitic graffiti on a Jewish-owned horse expanding to more offensive graffiti and attitudes. And yet Guido faces all of these trials with a smile on his face and a determination to get on with his life as best as he can.
The second half is where matters grow all that much darker. Interred in a concentration camp, Guido, Dora and their son Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini) must do everything they can to survive.
It is here that Guido protects his son from the horrors of their internment by pretending the whole thing is just a game. Through his smiling demeanour and aversion to discussing the true horror of their situation he manages to keep his son safe and away from the Nazi guards.
Hope is a powerful thing, but is an emotion that can be easily misplaced. There is one scene in particular later in the story where Guido meets a German doctor who once stayed at the hotel he worked at. Before the war they exchanged riddles and conundrums and had a pleasant, friendly relationship.
When Guido meets him again in the concentration camp, he has hope that the doctor will be able to at least help his son get out alive. Without spoiling anything, Guido discovers that hope is a double edged sword.
The true effects of the Holocaust aren’t covered in any great detail. Instead it forms the background and historical context for Guido and Dora’s situation. I don’t think the film would have benefitted from putting the true horror front and centre. We know it’s there, that is enough.
My one gripe with the script, and it is admittedly a minor one, is that Guido manages to keep his son safe for such a long period of time, even after the other Jewish children have been taken away. I’m not saying this wasn’t possible, it’s just that it feels somewhat in the realm of fantasy for his subterfuge to be maintained for that length of time.
Otherwise, it’s clear why Life Is Beautiful won at the Oscars. Guido is very much like Benigni, who famously clambered over tables, chairs and notable guests to collect his award at that year’s Oscars ceremony. It is a powerful and emotive journey for the audience, watching and supporting one family at a time where pure evil has overcome all that is good.
More importantly, it is a story of hope. Without it, all is lost.