Tuesday, October 25, 2016

1998 Winner, Life Is Beautiful

Life is Beautiful

Director:  Roberto Bengini

Distributed by:  Miramax Films

Released:  December 1997

Country:  Italy

I generally don’t watch the Academy Awards, mostly because I can’t stomach the self-congratulations and self-serving moralizing.  But in 1999, I happened to catch the part of the ceremony when Roberto Benigni won the Oscar for Best Actor for Life Is Beautiful.  Benigni spazzed out, standing on his seat, almost stepping on Steven Spielberg’s head on the way to get his trophy.  He was so enthusiastic and jubilant, I couldn't help but think . . . man, is that guy annoying.  I honestly wasn’t much looking forward to checking this film out because of that memory.  I knew Benigni from this Oscar flip out and from playing the son of Inspector Clouseau in The Son of the Pink Panther, director Blake Edward’s last film, so the only reason I made myself watch this movie was for My BFF Project.

Chairs are not stairs, paisano!
Am I ever glad I made myself watch this funny and touching film.  The movie is essentially two stories about Guido, a Jewish man living in pre-WWII Italy, played by Benigni.  In the first part of the movie, Benigni is a goofball waiter working at his uncle’s restaurant.  He is a classic underachiever—witty, funny, and smart, but  just wants to goof off and make everyone mad at him rather than apply himself.  He meets the beautiful and wealthy Dora, way out of his league, and sets out to get her interested in him.  His detailed and elaborate plans to win her go off like clockwork and are very funny.  There’s a bit of cornball in this part of the movie, but once in a while, a little cornball is good, especially given the second, and main, part of this movie coming.

Flash forward several years, and Guido and Dora are married with a 7-year-old son, Geosue, played with cuteness-at-the-acceptable-level by Giorgio Cantarini.  Guido is a doting father who keeps the family entertained and loving life.  The problem is, of course, this is the beginning of the war and Jews don’t seem to be doing any better in Italy than they did in the countries Germany occupies.  Father and son get rounded up and sent to a concentration camp, with Dora, a non-Jew, following.  To shelter Geosue as much as he can, Guido pretends the whole thing is a game, and that the winning team will be rewarded with a brand new tank, an idea that delights the little boy.  There are moments of despair and disappointment, but Guido’s sense of humor is what keeps Geosue, and the movie, going.

Cute, but not too cute, Geosue
Concentration camps don’t seem like the appropriate setting for a comedy, and when it comes down to it, this movie is not really a comedy—more like an upbeat tragedy.  Stalag 17, Billy Wilder’s masterful 1953 film set in a German POW camp is a good comparison in terms of tone.  Benigni sets the table in the first half:  Guido is a comic figure, with not an ounce of tragedy in him, while courting his future wife.  Because of this set up, we can buy into Guido’s upbeat, yet realistic approach, to dealing with the grimmest of situations.

Note:  Fans of the John Sturges’ Magnificent Seven from 1960 will recognize German actor Horst Buchholz as a “good” Nazi.  Life Is Beautiful was Buchholz’s last film in his 45-year career.

The Title:  La vita è bella.   In can be even in a concentration camp.

Horst Buchholz
The Culture:  The Holocaust in Italy was not quite the same as in Germany and other German-occupied parts of Europe, though between 1943 and 1945 about 10,000 Jews were deported, primarily to Auschwitz.  Benigni intentionally made this film historically inaccurate so as to differentiate things from the actual Holocaust. 

Agenda Danger:  Some objected to the idea of making a film with this subject matter with comedic elements to it.  But the film is not focused on the evil of the treatment of the Jews, but rather, the resilience of the human spirit.

Best Picture that year:  Shakespeare in Love.  Benigni beat out Tom Hanks for his role in Saving Private Ryan, and I am open to the argument that Hanks only lost because of his prior two wins for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump.  However, I consider Shakespeare in Love’s win to be a travesty unequaled in Oscar history, and one of the reasons I don’t watch the Academy Awards.

She's a little bit Country
Rating:  When I was about 10 (when there were three channels to watch on TV), my family sometimes watched the Donny and Marie Show—you know, the “She’s a little bit country, he’s a little bit rock and roll” variety show (Don’t judge!  I was a kid!).  While we would watch, on occasion we would catch my little brother, who couldn’t have been older than 8 or 9 at the time, beaming widely whenever the pretty Marie Osmond came on.  He would get mad and his face would turn beet-red whenever we called him out on it, but try as he might to stay angry, within a minute or two the smile would return to his face involuntarily.  That’s how I felt when watching this movie, which I had gone into deciding I would not like.  I bet if someone had walked in on me watching this movie, they would have asked me what I was smiling about. So you could say Life Is Beautiful is my Marie Osmond.

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