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Life Is Beautiful (1997, Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi)

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Although his Oscar antics may have sealed his image as a lovable joker, ebullient in his success and clambering over people and seats to collect his award, Roberto Benigni displayed more audacity on screen than he ever did at the Academy Awards. The decision to weave romantic comedy with the horror of the concentration camps split critical opinion yet intrigued the paying public, who made this one of the more successful grossing foreign language films.

Life Is Beautiful is set in Italy at the outbreak of the Second World War where Guido (Benigni), a young ambitious Jewish settler, heads for the small town of Arezzo where his uncle has promised employment. When he encounters Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), a young schoolteacher, he sets out to woo her relentlessly away from her fascist fiancé Rodalfo (Amerigo Fontani). Eventually winning her over with charm and comedic antics, the pair marry and settle in Arezzo, with their son Giosué (Giorgio Cantarini).

But the pernicious presence of the Nazis soon becomes an irresistable force and both father and son are deported to a concentration camp and Dora, insistent that the family must not be split, joins them on the train. On arrival at the camp the family are split and Guido is determined to shield the boy from the surrounding horror, telling him that they are involved in an elaborate game, with complex rules and a brilliant prize, that will save their lives…

The film’s shift in pace from comic antics and rose-coloured romanticism to one of impending dread and precipient horror was the key both to the success and the criticism of the film. ‘It may be that the Holocaust will always defeat any attempt at representation or comprehension,’ said one critic. ‘Life Is Beautiful is the first film that recognises the enormity of the task.’ Slapstick and genocide could be box office poison, but Benigni’s tale took $57 million in the US alone, earning him comparisons with Charlie Chaplin (fittingly, as Guido’s camp ID number is the same as Chaplin’s in The Great Dictator) while also preceeding the American Jakob the Liar, which tried to emulate the story mix.

Expertly balancing emotions, Benigni’s initial love story offers wonderful chemistry with Braschi (his real-life spouse), repeated in his relationship with Cantarini, and the lack of Hollywood-style schmaltz is mirrored in the film’s reluctance to embrace cliché. Public approval was matched by three Oscars and seven nominations (not to mention the Grand Jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival), making Benigni only the fourth person in the awards’ history – alongside Welles, Beatty and Woody Allen – to be nominated in the Actor, Director and Original Screenplay categories simultaneously.

production details
Italy | 116 minutes | 1997

Director: Roberto Benigni
Writers: Roberto Benigni, Vincenzo Cerami

cast
Pietro De Silva as Bartolomeo
Horst Buchholz as Dottore Lessing
Roberto Benigni as Guido Orefice
Nicoletta Braschi as Dora
Giorgio Cantarini as Giosué Orefice
Giustino Durano as Eliseo Orefice
Amerigo Fontani as Rodolfo
Sergio Bini Bustric as Ferruccio
Lidia Alfonsi as Signora Guicciardini
Marisa Paredes as Madre di Dora
Giuliana Lojodice as Direttrice
Francesco Guzzo as Vittorino
Adelaide Alaïs as German Auxilliary
Verena Buratti as German Auxilliary
Hannes Hellmann as German Corporal
Wolfgang Hillinger as German Major at Party
Antonio Prester as Bruno
Gina Rovere as Dora’s Maid
Laura Susanne Ruedeberg as German Auxilliary
Richard Sammel as German Lieutenant at Station
Andrea Tidona as Grand Hotel Doorman
Dirk K. van den Berg as German Soldier
Omero Antonutti as Narrator (voice) (uncredited)