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IN SHORT: A wonderful picture.
Italian, with subtitles.
Long time readers know that Cranky reviews foreign language films about as often as icicles form in Hell. That is an apt metaphor for Roberto Benigni's film, which generated a controversial buzz at Cannes, where it won the Grand Jury Prize. I'll explain why in a bit.
Life Is Beautiful (La Vita è Bella) is the story of Guido (Begnini), an exuberant, almost clownish, Italian whose mouth moves faster than a train and who body keeps running into the lovely Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), herself engaged to a Fascist official. Said official bears a grudge against Guido for an event concerning six eggs and a hat. Dora sees Guido as a way out of a boring life -- his exuberance is almost contagious -- and after they wed, her family will have little to do with them or their child.
The first Act of Life Is Beautiful is a deliciously comedic masterpiece. Within 2 minutes, the fascist salute is turned into a sight gag. There are other gags reminiscent of silent era films and the whirlwind courtship and marriage of Guido and Dora is a fine set up for the dangerous territory Begnini will inhabit. Life Is Beautiful crams so much dialog in to its subtitles that a good hunk of the comedy comes from reading at the same breakneck pace that the characters are acting on screen. If you haven't picked it up, it isn't until 20 minutes into the film that Guido is specifically labeled a "Jew".
A quick splice and we're in Act 2. Guido and Dora now have a young son, Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini). He is wide eyed and, like many boys, reticent to take his weekly bath. When the Nazis come to take Father and Son away, the Gentile wife chases after them and boards the train to the death camps.
What comes next will shred your heart, for Life Is Beautiful is not about the horrors of the concentration camps. It is not about man's cruelty to fellow man. It is about love.
That's the first thing you get taught in film school, boys and girls. Everything is a love story. Dora follows Guido on to the trains because she needs her love. Guido finds ways to get messages to the women's side of the camp, to let his wife know he is stil alive. That's from love. That the man behaves like a clown, and concocts an elaborate fairy tale cum lie that the camp is a real life role playing game -- get 1000 points and win a real tank -- is nothing more than the protective act of a father for his son.
Allow me to digress: There is a legend of a movie whose negative sits locked in a vault somewhere in Europe. Of an American comic who wants to get his hands on the negative, to destroy his work. The story was of a clown whose "job" it was to keep the children entertained and distracted as the Nazis herded them into the gas chambers. The final scene of the movie, it is said, had the distraught and heartbroken clown following the kidlets to their death. The Day The Clown Cried, starring Jerry Lewis, was the movie and it has never been seen.
It never need be seen, now. Robert Begnini has walked the fine line between tastelessness and absolute genius and delivered a movie that can do nothing but touch you in all the right places for all the right reasons. The contrast between Guido's pre-war life as a hotel waiter whose favorite patron was a German doctor (Horst Bucholz) with whom he traded riddles, and camp life, where the same doctor holds a life or death power over his "friend" is especially powerful. There are many oh so subtle buttons that Begnini pushes without becoming obvious about making a point. Life Is Beautiful, as a title, shows more meaning in those three little words than you could possibly believe.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Life Is Beautiful he would have paid...
Normally it would've gotten $7 but it's Oscar-time and this more than qualifies. Damn thing nearly made me cry. Cranky hates that.
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