Classic Movie Review: La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful) (1997)

Love and laughter in hell

A heart-rending tale from the Italian comedian, actor and director Roberto Benigni, the story follows a father and son torn from their wife and mother and incarcerated at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The main protagonist, Guido (Benigni) soon turns the camp experience into an elaborate game so that the horrors are shielded from his son. Full of slapstick humour in the first hour as Guido pursues his future wife, and the darkness sets in when the realities of the war become difficult to bear.

Benigni portrays a very vibrant Italy that soon changes as the axis agreement begins to marginalize the Jewish population, to which Guido and his family belong. The character of Guido is one of an extremely high level of imagination that appears to light up the lives of all he meets, even a German doctor whom he meets again in Bergen-Belsen, only this time the camaraderie of times past are long gone. Life is Beautiful tries to side-step the politics of the era and inject some human ingenuity and survival instincts, to some measured success. A difficult combination to achieve, but Benigni succeeds.

As one watches the film, it is hard not to sympathize with Guido as he tries his best to keep up the pretence of his elaborate game to enthuse his son. The hardest part being that he wants to see his mother, and there’s nothing Guido can do but carry on the pretence. Much of the film draws upon Benigni’s own family’s experience in the war, and his father, who survived three years at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

The final moments of this film bring about a rush of emotions, happiness, sadness and a feeling of relief. No spoilers here, just watch and enjoy it.

116 mins.In Italian, German and English.

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