In 1939, an Italian Jew (Roberto Benigni in an Oscar-winning role) uses humor to win the heart of a wealthy gentile heiress (Nicoletta Braschi); it works, but after they marry and have a son (Giorgio Cantarini), the Nazis take them to a concentration camp where he must use his craftiness and humor to give his son the skills and the will to survive. A delicate premise for any film, especially a comedy, Life Is Beautiful is a delightfully funny and richly human comedy about how light can shine through the darkest of tragedy. Its Blu-Ray debut offers meager extras but has fine picture and sound. Recommended.
Life Is Beautiful (La Vita e Bella) (1997)
Studio: Miramax (distributed by Lionsgate)
Length: 116 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Languages: Italian 5.1 DTS-HD MA, Italian Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Film Release Date: December 20, 1997
Disc Release Date: October 4, 2011
Review Date: November 21, 2011
How do you explain to your child about man’s inhumanity to man, especially when it takes the form of the Nazi Holocaust and you both may become its victims? In addition, how do you show humor in it without trivializing the plight of the 11 million Jews, Slavs, gypsies, gays, Poles, Soviet POWs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, disabled people, Freemasons, and political opponents of Nazism who were systematically exterminated? Ever since the end of World War II, most who tackled Nazism from a comedic perspective went after the people involved with it and the war itself. The concentration camps were off-limits until 1997, when Italian comedian Roberto Benigni used it as the backdrop for Life is Beautiful. He knew he was taking a gamble, but it paid off handsomely in the end.
In 1939 Italy, a jolly young man named Guido Oreface (Benigni) comes to Tuscany to set up a bookstore. There he meets and falls for Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, the real-life Mrs. Benigni), an attractive young woman from a wealthy family who comes to find his antics endearing. It seems like love at first sight, but there are complications; first, Guido is Jewish but Dora is not, and with the growing influence of Nazi anti-semitism over the Fascist Party—the Manifesto of Race had been passed the year before—this creates an increasingly unsafe political climate for Jews. When Dora says she prefers meeting him in chance encounters like the one where they first met, Guido, who has started working as a waiter, sets up several “chance encounters” that succeed in wooing her away from her fiancée. A few years later, when Nazism has strengthened its stranglehold over Europe, Guido is married to Dora and they have a four-year-old boy named Giosuè (Giorgio Cantarini). After they are taken to a concentration camp, Guido must find a way to keep his son’s hopes alive, even after he starts to realize the horrors that lie in store; he decides to build a game around it where the winner, whoever is the first to reach 1,000 points, receives a tank.
The film’s story starts out as a simple love story in the first act until the real meat of the story begins in the second. Yet it all works beautifully, thanks in no small part to Benigni’s charmingly comic character and his childlike optimism that helps him find joy and happiness in any situation. With his untamed, receding hair, lanky frame and penchant for physical comedy, he blends his devilishly amusing antics with an undeniable ability to make the audience sympathize with him. While comparisons to Charlie Chaplin may seem too obvious, keep in mind the fact that Chaplin made The Great Dictator in the early stages of the war, before the Holocaust began. If anything, this film manages to avoid that film’s biggest flaw: its sudden switch to seriousness with its ending speech. The film’s lightheartedness, which it manages to maintain throughout the film’s nearly two-hour running time, is not an ostrich-like denial of the ugly side of humanity, but a reflection of its rich humanism. At its core, the film is less about the Holocaust than it is about Guido’s loves: his love for Dora, his love for Giosuè, and his love of humanity. He is not blind to the realities of Nazism and he is not trying to deceive Giosué; if anything, he understands that a four-year-old cannot comprehend the horrors of Nazism and does the only thing he can to give his child a chance to survive. His actions are not about sugarcoating Nazism but about subverting it and escaping it. Giorgio Cantarini does an excellent job of capturing Giosuè’s precociousness and love for his father; too many child actors are either self-consciously exaggerating their innate cuteness or are only hired because they can remember lines, but this young lad is totally believable and endearing. The film’s period details are executed with flair and without becoming overpowering; the beautiful cinematography and upbeat musical score complement them perfectly.
While Benigni took a risk with this film, he reaped a great many rewards for it, among them four Oscars, including Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actor for Benigni, out of eight nominations, the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, and eight David Awards, the Italian equivalent of the Oscar. Filmgoers around the world loved it, too, and it grossed $229,163,264 worldwide.
The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in a lovely AVC-encoded transfer that does an exemplary job of capturing the Technicolor-like palette of Tonino Delli Colli’s beautiful cinematography, with natural flesh tones, strong color saturation that is never overdone or blooming, and strong contrast. The picture’s grain structure is tight enough that it is barely noticeable, but there is no obvious use of DNR or edge enhancement; save for the opening credits, the picture looks sharp and detailed enough without it. Contrast is strong, with dark blacks that reveal plenty of shadow detail and bright whites that never become blown out. The only negative is the jagged edges on the titles that look somewhat like 1980s chyron effects.
The film’s Italian soundtrack has been presented as a 5.1 DTS-HD MA track that is mainly front-centered and dialogue-driven, but there is noticeable surround activity thanks to Nicola Povani’s charming musical score and some subtle sound effects ambience. The track’s fidelity is well above average with little distortion and well-balanced frequencies.
All extras are in SD and 480i, ported over from the old Miramax DVD.
—Making Life Beautiful (23:27): An American TV special, released after the film’s Oscar triumphs, interviewing Begnini and others to talk about the unique challenges the film presents.
—Academy Award TV Commercials (5:20): A string of TV ads playing up the film’s success at the Oscars.
—Theatrical Trailer (2:04): The American theatrical trailer for the film.
Life Is Beautiful is a wonderfully human comedy that shows how humankind can thrive and find joy and happiness, even in the face of evil. Despite its lack of more in-depth extras—I would have appreciated background info on how Nazi Germany’s policies affected those of Fascist Italy, especially where anti-semitism was concerned—it still does a fine job presenting the film itself. Recommended.