Movie Review: Life is BeautifulBy Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Directed by Roberto Benigni
Written by Vincenzo Cerami and Roberto Benigni
With Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini
The multiply-hyphenate Roberto Benigni (actor-director-writer) was formerly known for his simplistic comedies (Johnny the Toothpick, The Monster), which combined verbal inventiveness with unabashed slapstick. A good deal of people found them hilarious; I found them to be a deplorable waste of talent on less-than-inspired stories. Now Benigni tries his hand at something much more ambitious, and proves that he's up to the task. Life is Beautiful is a World War II tragicomedy - and, despite the roughness in writing, quite a remarkable film.
Life is Beautiful has a peculiar structure, so a detailed analysis would requite divulging a couple of major plot twists which take place in the second half of the picture; if you have read any other review of this film, you know what I mean. But I honestly feel that watching it with as little prior knowledge as possible will markedly increase your enjoyment. Thus, I'd rather be oblique than revealing - please bear with me.
The story starts in 1939, with the arrival of Guido (Benigni) to a small Italian town. Guido is Jewish, penniless, cheerful, and wants to become a bookseller. He also wants Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), a charming schoolteacher who literally falls into his arms. Soon Guido starts wooing Dora using his greatest asset: To put it simply, he's a liar, skillful and talented, possessing the true liar's gift - he believes his own lies himself. Guido the character - as well as Benigni the director/co-writer - rejoices in bending the world to his will, making life truly beautiful.
And herein lies the main story of Life is Beautiful: The human capacity to creatively interpret the world, and Benigni's take on this capacity, which is decidedly complex. Not only can it bring joy and romance, it can also cause denial and madness. This split nature is mirrored in the film's structure. It consists of two parts, which are roughly equal in length but diametrically opposed in tone. The film starts as a gentle romantic comedy, replete with pratfalls and Chaplinesque slapstick; when evil enters the picture, it's only to be satirized and ridiculed. But as time goes on, in the second half Guido is again forced to lie about the world around, not so much to placate his loved ones as to convince himself that it's not happening. He refuses to believe the horror surrounding him.
Unfortunately, the second half is less satisfying than the first, most likely because it's virtually plotless. While first hour worked as a romance and thus had a clear story arc, the second hour is concerned with a situation which is very much static, and the narrative pull is much weaker. The climax is somewhat disappointing as well, with a couple of sizable plot holes.
But the overall impact is quite remarkable, with all the wildly disparate elements combining into a cohesive whole. Benigni is also assisted by excellent production design and musical score (Nicola Piovani, who also scored several of the latest Fellini movies). There are parallels with Fellini as well as with Chaplin; Life is Beautiful has the small-town charm and ambience of Amarcord and rapier-sharp satire of The Great Dictator. It may feel shocking to compare Benigni with two of the greatest film directors, but the disparity is explainable - I'm comparing him at his best with middle-of-the-road films by the masters.
In any case, Life is Beautiful is certainly worth your attention, and Miramax (the U.S. distributor) perhaps does it a disservice by advertising it as a feel-good movie. It's darker - and better - than that.