Directed by: Roberto Benigni || Produced by: Gianluigi Braschi, Elda Ferri
Screenplay by: Roberto Benigni, Vincenzo Cerami || Starring: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini, Giustino Durano, Horst Buchholz
Music by: Nicola Piovani || Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli || Editing by: Simona Paggi || Country: Italy || Language: Italian, German
Running Time: 116 minutes
Sometimes, you just need a happy movie. Sometimes, you need a happy movie for even the darkest of stories. La Vita e Bella, also known as Life is Beautiful, is a very happy movie despite covering a very sad moment in recent history.
The film is lead by the triple directing, writing, and starring effort of Roberto Benigni, who acts as the super-likable protector of innocence for the whole narrative. That is what this movie is about: The protection and preservation of innocence. For the most part, the movie does a good job portraying its optimistic theme effectively through its sympathetic cast of Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi (Benigni’s actual wife), and Giorgio Cantarini. Benigni is charming and makes for a great protagonist. The way he woos his wife, mocks the Italian Fascist Party, and how he safeguards his young son from the horrors of the Holocaust are both funny and emotionally powerful. Through Benigni, the movie manages to be lighthearted and deadly serious at the same time. Although about the same subject, Life is Beautiful is a totally different film than, say, Schindler’s List (1993).
Ironically, the best shot in the whole movie is when the story is at its darkest. The haunting visual of Benigni carrying his son through a concentration camp near the end of the war, walking cautiously through waves of fog only to come across a mountain of corpses, and then slowly backing away before his son can view the horror, is such a poignantly beautiful moment that summarizes the movie’s theme.
The movie does have a few significant faults, though. As playful as much of the films is, some of the slapstick performed by Benigni grows repetitive. Life is Beautiful has one style of humor, and it does it well, but this one-trick pony can only entertain for so long. Additionally, the first act establishes the principal family’s backstory, sets up Benigni’s character, and foreshadows the fascist horrors to come, but it lasts far too long. This long-winded opening act slows the story to a crawl before any threat or conflict arises. There’s too much comedic filler, in other words. The movie runs 116 minutes and has enough content for about two thirds of that length.
Despite some editing and repetition issues, however, Life is Beautiful is an upbeat success that tells a serious story while not taking itself too seriously. It’s an oddball approach to an infamous period in history that has spawned countless fictional narratives, and it manages to stand on its own. Benigni hasn’t crafted a sublime work, but he knows his strengths well enough to craft a story that is truly his own.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Benigni’s charm and likability are what carry this film. He is a relatable everyman who works toward an honorable goal, and it is no chore to root for him whatever the situation.
— However… some of Benigni’s humor gets repetitive. The first act needs plenty of editing.
? If I was grading this movie on adorable child actors, Giorgio Cantarini would get an “A +.”