1998 / Best Actor / Best Director / Best Picture

Film #368: Life is Beautiful (1998)

Continuing on from Il Postino with another film from Italy that found itself nominated for Best Picture. Life is Beautiful differs from Il Postino in that its themes are a lot darker but at the same time I think that actor/director Roberto Benigni’s central turn is a lot less subtle than Troissi’s.

Certainly the film’s opening thirty minutes, in which Benigni’s Guido attempts to woo schoolteacher Flora, sees the star get a little overly manic. Benigni’s performance throughout the film sees him channel Hollywood’s silent clowns and there’s something Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton-esque about his turn in the film. I personally feel that Benigni spends too long building up the Flora and Guido romance and doesn’t focus enough on their family life when they become parents to son Joshua. The parts of the film most will remember is when Jewish Guido and his family members are carted off to a concentration camp. Even though she isn’t Jewish, Flora sacrifices herself to be close to her husband and son. In the concentration camp scenes Benigni obviously has to tone down Guido’s physical comedy routine and I did enjoy the brief moments he portrayed his character’s despair. To keep Joshua’s spirits up, Guido pretends that they’re partaking in a game to win a tank and all of the brutal punishments inflicted on them are only challenges to win points. It’s an interesting narrative idea and one that works perfectly providing just the right balance between the horrors of the Holocaust and the innocence of Joshua. The film goes right through to the end of the war as Guido tries to find his princess before the Americans come to free everyone. Anybody who’s seen the film knows of the emotional ending but I’m not here to spoil anything for you.

I had watched Life is Beautiful once before, as part of my film studies course, and at the time remember the film received quite an emotional reaction. Indeed I have to admit to still having a tear in my eye when hearing the voiceover by the actor plaing the older version of Joshua. What I hadn’t remembered was how long the film took to actually build up to its main scenes at the concentration camp. On the one hand I can completely understand the need for character development but these opening scenes did seem to be a showcase for Benigni’s comic mannerisms before the main plot of the film began. I think your enjoyment of Life is Beautiful is solely based on how much you like Benigni’s performance and it did take me a while to warm to him. However I think the second half of the film showed him at his best and he delivered a calmer more reserved performance in which he balanced the tone of the story really well.
Even though Benigni went on to win the Best Actor award for his role in the film I feel that, of the two, I preferred Troisi’s more nuanced turn in The Postman. Praise must also go to Giorgio Cantarini as young Joshua, who captures all of the innocence of a young boy trapped in a world that he doesn’t understand. It’s in portraying this father and son relationship that Life is Beautiful really succeeds and I think that’s why it appealed to a wider audience. Just like with Il Postino, Life is Beautiful was distributed by Miramax, who are known for influencing decisions at the Oscars. Unluckily for Benigni, another of Miramax’s horses won the race for the Gold that year but at the same time I think he was satisfied enough with his own individual achievement. While I enjoyed the story of Life is Beautiful, I felt the first half of the film was too long and didn’t really add much to my understanding of the characters. Ultimately Life is Beautiful provided an emotional story about a father and son which was told well and had some very realistic qualities throughout.


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