Life is beautiful. Judge Clark Douglas, on the other hand...
An unforgettable fable that proves love, family and imagination conquer all.
Okay. Let's talk about Life is Beautiful, arguably the most hotly debated Holocaust film ever made. It's a movie that has built up a generous portion of similarly passionate fans and detractors. I once spoke to a girl who gushed about how much it had moved her; tears came to her eyes as she recounted a handful of exceptionally heartbreaking moments. A couple years later, I spoke to a guy who was so angered by the film he could barely talk about it coherently; he claimed it was the worst historical film ever made. Obviously, it inspires strong reactions, but why don't we set aside the hyperbole and really consider what the film has to offer. How well is this charm-filled Holocaust fable holding up after all these years?
The story concerns an Italian Jewish man named Guido Orefice (Roberto Benigni, Night on Earth), who has just taken a job as a waiter at his uncle's hotel. Guido is an eager-to-please goofball with a gift for making people laugh; he has no interest in the turbulent social changes sweeping through his country. He reacts to the rise of racism and intolerance with cheeky bewilderment, even posing as an Italian propaganda official and giving a group of school children a tongue-in-cheek speech on the superiority of the white race ("Look at this belly button! What a magnificent belly button!" he crows). During this time he also romances the lovely Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, Down By Law), who is engaged to be married to an arrogant Italian aristocrat.
The film begins as a warm and whimsical comedy which foreshadows the horrors to come in gentle fashion. The first hour of Life is Beautiful works rather well, and Benigni is at his most Chaplin-esque during this period. There's a splendid early scene in which an unintended gesture is interpreted as a fascist salute that is very reminiscent of similar scenes from The Great Dictator, and another early scene contains a perfect little exchange:
Benigni: "What are your political views?
We jump ahead a few years for the second half of the film, in which Guido and Dora are married and have a young son named Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini, Gladiator). The oppression of the Jewish people has become considerably more prevalent, though Guido does everything within his power to shield his child from the horrors of the real world. When Giosue asks about a sign which reads, "No Dogs or Jews," Guido shrugs it off as a personal preference. "We'll put up a sign on our shop that says 'No Spiders or Visigoths,'" he asserts. It's not long before the father and son are shipped off to a concentration camp, where Guido continues to insist on protecting his son from the reality of what's happening. He insists that the camp is nothing more than an elaborate game, and whoever gets to 1000 points first wins a tank. How do you win points? By not eating much, by not crying, and by not asking for your mother, for starters.
I don't have a problem with the fact that Life is Beautiful uses gentle comedy in the face of horrific events, nor do I have a problem with the fact that the film concludes on an uplifting note. It's only natural for us to seek stories of inspiration in the midst of horrible circumstances. Even such emotionally taxing historical dramas as Saving Private Ryan, Hotel Rwanda, Schindler's List, and United 93 do this. However, all of those films take great pains to fully emphasize the weight and horror of the events they depict. The inspiring moments are realistic and well-earned. However, every now and then a film about a horrible moment in history comes along that is so concerned with making us feel good that it doesn't put in the work required to arrive at the uplifting moments. Oliver Stone's World Trade Center is one such film, a movie that highlighted miraculous survival stories at the expense of dismissing those who lost loved ones. Life is Beautiful also falls into that category, as it is required to soften the impact of the Holocaust in order for its fairy tale of a story to work.
Benigni has insisted that Life is Beautiful is not intended as a realistic portrait of the Holocaust, but rather as a fable about love. Okay. So why use something as weighty, emotionally exploitative and deadly serious as the Holocaust as a plot device in that fable? There really is a very fine film lurking within Life is Beautiful, as the actual idea of a father using humor to keep his son's spirit alive is a rather moving one. However, Benigni too frequently turns the concentration camp into a Hogan's Heroes-style caricature of the real thing, complete with silly, goose-stepping bad guys. This approach worked in Chaplin's persistently fantastical The Great Dictator, but Life is Beautiful tries to have its death camp drama and dismiss it, too. It offers scenes meant to carry all the emotional weight of similar scenes from Schindler's List, but it simply hasn't earned the right to throw such moments at us. By failing to acknowledge the true horror of the Holocaust (save for one heartbreaking shot) and conveniently setting aside brutal realities for the sake of preserving his happy ending, Benigni unintentionally robs the film of its dignity. Life is Beautiful is the Patch Adams of Holocaust movies; a well-intentioned film which so persistently ignores reality that it comes perilously close to feeling repulsive.
Life is Beautiful arrives on Blu-ray sporting a decent 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. The image definitely looks a little more beat-up than you might expect for a film made as recently as 1997, but it's been cleaned up fairly well and is largely free of any significant blemishes. Detail isn't exactly eye-popping, as the cinematography employs a lot of softness (perhaps to enhance the fable qualities of the story). Colors are bright and robust, blacks are satisfactorily deep, shadow delineation is impressive and flesh tones are natural. Audio is fine, with the enthusiastic dialogue and a sweetly playful score by Nicola Piovani dominating the track. There's nothing which is going to give your speaker system a workout or provide intensely immersive atmosphere, but everything is clean and clear. Supplements are on the light side: an EPK-style featurette called "Making Life is Beautiful" (23 minutes), some Academy Award Television Commercials and a trailer.
While Life is Beautiful is a film with some fine moments, good ideas, and strong craftsmanship, it makes a handful of crucial mistakes that are damaging enough to sink the entire film. Those who regard the film as a modern masterpiece may be a little disappointed by this slightly underwhelming Blu-ray release.
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