Life is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni’s achingly funny and hauntingly beautiful WWII romantic comedy-tragedy about love, family, and sacrifice, describes itself as a "fable," and so it is. The story unfolds in two acts. In the first, Benigni is Guido, an Italian waiter recklessly and flamboyantly courting a pretty schoolteacher named Dora (Braschi, Benigni’s real-life wife), whom he invariably greets with an exuberant "Buon giorno Principessa!" (Good day, Princess!). Benigni is a hapless clown akin to Chaplin’s Little Tramp, and Guido woos his "principessa" the only way he can — with slapstick humor, audacious improvisation, and outrageous sight gags.
Soon, however, we learn Guido’s secret: He is a Jew, and he gets by from day to day relying on the same madcap strategems he uses on Dora — even at one point impersonating an SS officer and improvising a lecture for Italian schoolchildren on the inherent superiority of the Aryan navel.
In the second act, Guido, Dora, and their young son Giosue (Joshua) are deported to a concentration camp, where once again Guido protects his son from the horrors they will face the only way he can — with humor. Contriving to hide the boy from camp officials (who soon put the other children to death), Guido tells Giosue that the concentration camp is actually an elaborate role-playing game in which the "players" are competing for points in the hopes of winning a real battle tank. From then on, Guido will take any risk, court any danger, to maintain his son’s illusion that none of it is real.
In real life, of course, such a deception would not only be wrong, it wouldn’t work for even a day. Is Benigni making light of the Holocaust — suggesting that, with the right attitude, Auschwitz would have been a game? Not at all. Rather, he is creating a "fable" about love and sacrifice. For that matter, Guido’s courtship of Dora, interpreted literally, is as preposterous as his death-camp antics.
But the movie is not about the reality of either courtship or death camps. It is a metaphor about the lengths to which a man will go for those he loves, a meditation on the beauty of life even when tragically restricted or cut short.
Postscript: Pope John Paul II saw a special viewing of Life is Beautiful at the Vatican with Benigni. Although Benigni lives in Rome not far from the Vatican, he had never before seen or met the Pope, and was in California when the Vatican contacted him, so he had to fly halfway around the world for the meeting!
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.