Oscar Vault Monday – La vita è bella (Life Is Beautiful), 1998 (dir. Roberto Benigni)
I believe the first time I saw this movie my mother and I had taped it off of Encore when they were celebrating recent Oscar winners. It had already won all its awards and we had already cheered for Begnini on the strength of his personality alone. We wanted to rent it from the local video store, but all they had was a dubbed version, full frame (aka cropped) VHS (we didn’t have a DVD player at this point). We were overjoyed when we found it widescreen and subtitled, and taped it because it was playing while I was in school. That taped version would later be taped over (I forgot to pull out the chip!), but that is a family controversy for another day. I still remember how much I loved that film and how excited I was for it to win even when I hadn’t seen it yet. When we did see it, we were excited all over again. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning three: Best Dramatic Score (won, they still had a Comedy score category at this point, which was won by Shakespeare in Love), Best Foreign Language Film (won), Best Film Editing, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor Roberto Benigni (won), Best Director and Best Picture. It was also only the 6th foreign language film to be up for Oscar’s top prize; only eight films have done this in all of Oscar’s history: Grand Illusion (1938); Z (1969); The Emigrants (1972); Cries and Whispers (1973); Il Postino (1995); Life Is Beautiful (1998); Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and most recently Amour (2012). Letters from Iwo Jima, which was nominated for Best Picture in 2006, was entirely in Japanese, but it was an American production (and directed by Clint Eastwood). The other films up for Best Picture for 1998 were Elizabeth, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line and winner Shakespeare in Love.
In doing some research on this film, I found some contemporary criticism from when it came out over how the film takes on such a weighty subject, but does so with a light touch. Honestly, I don’t find anything wrong with the approach Benigni took with this film. I think he manages to balance the tone quite brilliantly and the whole point of the film is that, despite all horrors, life really is beautiful. It’s like in Sullivan’s Travels, when the Joel McCrea character thinks he needs to make serious films because his comedies seem so pointless during the dark depression, but while he travels around the country, he realizes it is humor that keeps people going during dark times. I think that is what Guido tried to do for his son and I think that is what Benigni is trying to say about life in general.
Borrowing from the tradition of clowns and the wise-fool (which, after reading Fellini on Fellini, I found out is a really huge thing in Italy), Benigni’s performance is colored in shades of Chaplin, Keaton and even the Marx Bros. His comedy is so full of lust for life, and feels so natural and easy, you can’t help but smile while watching him. With his nomination for Best Actor, Benigni became only the fifth actor to be nominated for a foreign film. There have now been six actors altogether: Marcello Mastroianni (he was nom’d three times: Divorzio all’italiana (1961), Una giornata particolare (1977), Oci ciornie (1987)), Giancarlo Gianni (Pasqualino Settebellezze aka Seven Beauties, 1975, it had four other nominations, including the first Best Director nomination for a woman – Lina Wertmüller), Max Von Sydow (Pelle Erobreren aka Pell the Conqueror, 1987), Gérard Depardieu (Cyrano de Bergerac, 1990), Massimo Troisi (Il Postino, 1995, this was a posthumous nomination), Roberto Benigni (La vita è bella, 1998; his win is the only actor to win for a foreign film), and Javier Bardem (Biutiful, 2010).
Guido’s courtship of Dora, whom he constantly refers to as “Principessa,” takes up most of the first half of the film and is one of the most beautiful romances ever. Guido’s unconditional love for her streams through ever pore of Benigni’s being. The scene where they are both at a wedding and finally kiss is one of the most satisfying unions of two characters in recent memory.
Dora is actually played by Benigni’s real-life wife Nicoletta Braschi, who is also featured, along with Benigni, in a few of Jim Jarmusch’s early works. Braschi is equally as brilliant in this film, though in a much more subtle role. She doesn’t speak much throughout the film, but her eyes say more than dialogue ever could. Benigni manages to capture their real-life chemistry perfectly, which makes watching them on the screen even more enjoyable.
In the first half of the film, Benigni balances this romance a-story with the rise of Fascism and anti-Semitism in Italy as a b-story. One such example is the horse painted green. Guido’s father reacts badly to it, and rightfully so. But Guido takes it in stride, and eventually steals the horse and rides off with Dora on it, like a prince in a fairytale. But, it’s an ominous ride, as we know the fairytale is unlikely to end well.
After roughly the midpoint of the film, it jumps to a few years later, when Guido and Dora have been married for a while and have a son. This is 1945 and WWII is raging and Italy is now sending Jews and other “unwanted” peoples to concentration camps. Guido, his son and his father are rounded up and put on a train. Dora tries to plead for their lives and when she fails, volunteers to go with them. It’s one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film. She doesn’t get to see them; she’s put on a different train car. Their son, Joshua, thinks the train was stopped so his mother could get on and Guido doesn’t have the heart to tell his son the sacrifice Dora has just made for her family. This is one of the moments where I think Benigni’s skills really shine. Just look at his eyes. Look at that emotion.
Early in the film Guido does some mistranslating in the school where Dora worked, this trope comes back when he volunteers to translate the instructions from the Germans to the new members of the concentration camp. This is where he turns the entire experience into a game in order to shield his son from reality. It’s a tough scene for many reasons. For one, he could be caught at any minute and you know this and Guido knows this. For two, you can see the reaction of the fellow concentration camp men, they know he is not translating it right and Guido’s mission to shield his son could cause them their lives. Was this an okay thing to do? I don’t know. It’s ambiguous and I think that is part of why it resonates so well.
Even though Dora is in the same concentration camp, she never sees her family, but when Guido finds the chance to let her know they are okay – he sees a loudspeaker microphone that has been left unattended – he risks his life to get a message to her. Again, it’s both romantic and completely terrifying. The tone in this second half of the movie is so perfectly balanced between this romance, Guido’s humor for the sake of his son and the grave reality that they could all die at any minute.
At one point, Guido runs into a German doctor (Horst Buchholz) with whom he used to have a jovial relationship prior to the war. When the doctor tells Guido he has something urgent to discuss with him, Guido thinks he is going to help him escape. This is not so. The doctor has clearly lost his mind, and all he can think about now is the riddles that he and Guido used to share. This is his coping mechanism for the horrors he has witnessed, and probably taken part in.
The last scene between Guido and his son Joshua is just the most simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming of scenes. The war is ending and the Germans are “cleaning” out the camp, so Guido hides Joshua in a sweat box while he tries to find a way for them to escape. Sadly, he gets caught and marched off to what we all know is his death, but realizing his son can see him through a hole in the sweat box, he turns his death march into a sort of silly walk.
Basically, if you are not crying at this point I think you need to check your pulse.
After Guido’s death, you have an audience at its lowest and a film that has gone suddenly very dark. What you then get is a great payoff to the on-going “it’s all a game” mindset that Guido gave his son. He stands, all alone in the eerily abandoned concentration camp, when out of nowhere what should appear, but a tank! It’s a truly perfect moment of cinematic magic.
Then you get the very end of the film, Dora reunited with her son. It’s the happy ending you want for these characters, even if it’s not the happy ending that many people got in real life. It’s the happy ending we wish they could have gotten and it’s the happy ending we all hope to get in our own lives.
Now I am just going to share with you Roberto’s acceptance speeches for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actor because they are some of the most joyous speeches in Oscar history.
Posted on February 25, 2013, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged Giorgio Cantarini, Horst Buchholz, La vita è bella, Life Is Beautiful, Nicoletta Braschi, Roberto Benigni. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.