Copyright © 1998 All Rights Reserved.
by Richard Zywotkiewicz
La Vita è Bella (Life Is Beautiful)
Starring Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi and Giorgio Cantarini
Directed by Roberto Benigni
Opens Friday, November 13
For a start, let us compare Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful to arguably one of the best Holocaust films: Schindler's List. Steven Spielberg's film has the impact of a tank - powerful, huge, unstoppable. Benigni's film is more like an idea - say Newton's theory of gravity, or Copernicus's argument for the world being round - the film's impact will be felt long after its release.
The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, People's Choice Awards at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Vancouver International Film Festival, and the Montreal Film Festival, and eight David di Donatello Awards (Italian Oscars) including best picture, actor, director and screenplay, Life Is Beautiful ("La Vita è Bella") is a Chaplin-esque fable about the power of imagination set against the stark reality of World War II Europe.
Guido (Benigni) is an enchanting individual with childlike innocence and grand dreams of owning his own book shop. It's 1939, and he has come to the Tuscan town of Arrezzo with his poet friend Ferruccio. With unabashed humor and joy, the two seek fortune and romance, ignoring the growing anti-Semitism and Fascist government that surrounds them. Guido falls in love with Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), a beautiful young school teacher, and a fairy-tale romance ensues.
Several years later, Guido and Dora are married and have a son, and Guido has finally opened the book shop of his dreams. But now, the occasional bigotries Guido once ignored have become Racial Laws with which he must come to terms. Throughout it all, Guido is determined to shield his son from the brutal reality governing their lives. This determination becomes a matter of life and death when Guido and his son are sent to a concentration camp three months before the war's end.
If you have never, ever seen a foreign film to this day, it is now time. As grandiose as it may sound, Life Is Beautiful is the best film of the decade - foreign or other. It will leave you laughing in the aisles for the first hour, and if you're not crying by its end, you must be the Terminator.
Roberto Benigni is a huge star in Italy and the rest of Europe, but is virtually unknown here. Part of the problem was the studios' attempts to mold him into Peter Sellers (the last of the Pink Panther series) and it just didn't work. Benigni marches to his own drum and his previous work (check out Johnny Stecchino) leaves you drowning in laughs and begging for more. Humor doesn't usually translate internationally, that's why U.S. comedies usually bomb elsewhere. Yet, Benigni speaks to everyone. His physical humor and compassion make him a living legend amongst the ranks of Chaplin and Keaton.
There is so much humor and such sublime pathos in Life Is Beautiful; films like Schindler's List never had a chance.
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