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Life Is Beautiful: True to its Name


It can be difficult to watch a story unfold that is superficially light when the viewer knows doom is not far behind. You laugh, but you laugh watching over your shoulder.

That could be the case with Life is Beautiful. It isn't. You find yourself laughing so much in the beginning and so caught up in the story, that you almost forget where the movie is heading. Then it's too late. You're involved.

Life is Beautiful opens in 1939 fascist Italy. Jewish-Italian imp Guido (director and co-writer Roberto Benigni) arrives in a small Tuscan village and takes a job as a waiter in the Grand Hotel where his uncle serves as major domo.

Along the way Guido catches the eye of Doro (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni's wife). Immediately taken with her, he conspires to ensure that they meet again and again. She, too, is drawn to him, but is engaged to another, the town fascist whom Guido has already alienated with his buffoonish ways.

Following a Graduate-type ending to Guido's romantic pursuit, the movie jumps ahead four years. Dora and Guido now have an adorable son, Giosue (cutely played by Giorgio Cantarini). They own a bookstore and seem to be living an idyllic life. Even Guido's mother-in-law is coming to terms with their marriage.

But the Nazis are in control, and we know this can't last. It doesn't. Guido, Giosue, and Guido's uncle are carted off without warning in the middle of the afternoon to a concentration camp. Doro, not wanting to live without them, begs to be taken as well and gets her wish.

This is where Roberto Benigni's famed skill as a clown truly takes hold and where the movie rises to a new level. Guido raised Giosue in a home of love, trust, fun and games. Giosue adores him and trusts him completely. Guido has made Giosue's entire life a game for him and now is no exception. Their games continue in ways that are hard to imagine. Guido makes the entire experience a game for Giosue -- the bigotry, the train ride to the camps, the Nazi drills, the gunshots. In so doing, not only does he care for the boy, he cares for the audience, too.

It's easy to see why Life is Beautiful won a 1998 Cannes prize. One of Italy's most beloved stars, Benigni proves himself a clown and actor for all times. This movie will haunt you. It should. But it's worth the price.

Joan Fuchsman

Share your views on this movie.

A Reader Responds:

Personally, I loved the movie "Life is Beautiful."  I thought it was funny through the beginning, and at the end, I couldn't stop crying.  It was such a touching movie, it was really hard to see the way people were treated at the concentration camps, and that movie showed it all to you.  Even if it was hard to take at times, I think that movie deserves an award.  It's one of the best movies I've seen in a long time.  (Plus, I luv that guy's little walk thing he does for his son throughout the movie.)  :)  :)