Miramax // 1998 // 116 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Rob "Treg" Traegler (Retired) // December 23rd, 1999
An unforgettable fable that proves love, family and imagination conquer all.
If you have an innate fear of subtitles like I do, please don't skip this wonderful, life-affirming fable that stayed with me for days after I saw it in the theater last March. Miramax is calling this DVD release part of their Collector's Series editions, but little extra content denies comparison to others in the series.
I have never been a big fan of foreign films or subtitles, perhaps due to my '70s mentality laziness, or my Spielbergian "popcorn" movie mindset. But when friends and co-workers kept raving about this beautiful film last winter, I had to see for myself. The title alone has so much more impact after you've seen this film complete with its devastating ending. It's such an ambiguous ending as well, which is part of the film's appeal. It leaves the viewer simultaneously elated and heartbroken. Roberto Benigni (The Monster, Johnny Stecchino, Little Devil) serves as actor, director and co-writer on this extraordinary picture and he is masterful in every one of these departments. This film won three Academy Awards last spring for Best Actor, Best Foreign Film and Best Score and rightfully so. Benigni's is an understated performance, not an acting showcase typical of Oscar-worthy grandstanding of the past. He must walk such a fine line in this film, not only as a comedian but also as a subtle dramatic actor. He must convey to the audience a deep-seated fear for his family's lives, while maintaining an air of stability and safety for his young son's sense of security. His performance is worth the purchase of this disc alone.
Life is Beautiful is set in Italy during World War II under the ominous backdrop of the Holocaust. Benigni stars as Guido, a charming, happy-go-lucky waiter who keeps having coincidental run-ins with a beautiful young woman, Dora, who he repeatedly refers to as Princepessa, or Princess, played by Benigni's real-life wife, Nicoletta Braschi. Like any enamored young man, he knows it is their destiny to be together and pursues her affection by any means necessary. He eventually wins her over in a glorious party sequence that is followed by one of the best transition sequences I've seen in a movie in years. Without giving anything away, director Benigni displays in one continuous long shot the passage of five years complete with the couple's off-screen marriage and addition of a five-year-old son, Joshua, played superbly by young Giorgio Cantarini.
The film then delves into a very touchy area in which Guido and his family are transported to a concentration camp. Guido and his son are then separated from Princepessa and Guido tries to effectively convince his son that their entire imprisonment is part of a huge game in which participants must collect points to win a tank. Actor Benigni carefully manages to keep the humor intact while maintaining a feeling of desperation, hopelessness and fear for his child's safety. It's an incredibly perfect balance of these elements that had me riveted the entire last hour of this film. I'm not afraid to tell you that I was a basket case for hours after initially seeing this film. It's got a surprise ending comparable to The Sixth Sense, but much more gentle and life affirming. Through the use of a bookended voice-over narrative, Benigni holds his audience in the palm of his hand, gently and affectionately.
The DVD itself looks very good which is a surprise because the film transfer I saw in the theater was murky and washed out, but then again, half the movies I see in the theater look this way anymore. I'm sorry, but I just wish digital projection would get to theaters soon because honestly, my DVDs look so much better than most of the films I see in movie houses these days. The edges on this DVD are sharp and the colors are exuberant. Black levels are fine and fleshtones are surprisingly life-like. I was very impressed by the look of this disc. The extras however are quite unworthy of the Collector Series logo compared to the wonderful extra-packed Miramax release, Good Will Hunting. This one's more comparable to Halloween H2O. Ironically, Miramax recently announced that Life is Beautiful and Halloween H2O would no longer be referred to as special editions. Good call Miramax, but uh...don't you watch these discs before you release them? There is a nice but brief featurette about the film featuring interviews with Michael Keaton and Walter Matthau (don't ask).
Miramax also gives you the option of watching the film dubbed in English, but it just doesn't have the same impact and I bailed and returned to the Italian language after about ten minutes. The problem with these dubs is that in every scene, the actors' voices sound as if they are in a recording studio whether the scene takes place indoors or out. It just kills the believability factor for me and takes me back to the Godzilla films I sat through as a kid. There is a trailer and an Academy Award flavored commercial as well. The audio on the disc is Dolby 5.1, but it's more complimentary to Nicola Piovani's wonderful Oscar-winning score than its use of surround effects.
The price for this disc is way too high, ranging in the $34.98-ollector's Series. Until I see a couple more Collector's Series releases, the jury's out on this one.
Review content copyright © 1999 Rob "Treg" Traegler; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Italian)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* "Making Life Beautiful" Featurette
* Academy Award TV commercials
* Theatrical Trailer
* Bomis - Life Is Beautiful Ring