Life is Beautiful
directed by Roberto Benigni
(Miramax, 1997)

Life is Beautiful evoked an extreme, knee-jerk reflex in me.

I can't put my finger on what, exactly, disturbs me about it. My first, and strongest, reaction was to run screaming from the VCR, not bothering to "be kind and rewind" before throwing it violently at the video store window.

I can't do that, though. I was given the screener copy as a gift, and throwing it back in the giver's face (literally) would be a little rude.

Now, an hour later, I'm sitting here in front of a blank page, trying to identify what about it was so evocative. The cinematography was fantastic -- Roberto Benigni (the director and lead actor) won an Oscar for his film, and on technical grounds it's amazing. The colors are muted and greyed, but prominent enough that they add a sense of pastoral calm or a sense of drudgery and oppression -- exactly what the story was trying to convey. The actors were amazing; even the unlikable ones were technically good. The characters themselves were developed, engaging and rich.

Granted, the subject matter isn't exactly traditional comedy material. In World War II Italy, a young man wins his girl from an overbearing clod. They have a child, and life would appear to be bright, if it weren't for the anti-Semite sentiment that pervades their lives. When the man and his son are taken to a concentration camp, he is forced to find a way to help the boy deal with it, while dealing with the horror himself.

I think I may have just put my finger on it. The film was touted as a comedy, to an extent. I wasn't expecting it to be anything other than a comedy.

Let me be the first to tell you: this is not a comedy. Prepare yourself before you watch. There are funny parts. Some of the script is laugh-out-loud funny, in fact. But this is not a comedy.

What it is is a horrible, stark view of a man trying desperately to protect his son from something so terrible that there is no way to shield him fully. There is a low-lying murmur, a subcontext if you will, of human brutality that slowly cranks up through the beautiful filming and the carefree antics until it is a high-pitched, mind-numbing shriek that draws your attention even as it defies categorization. The tension is high -- but all the while, the father keeps his face twisted in a grimace-like smile.

This movie hurts. And it hurts in the worst possible way. It wraps around your thoughts while you aren't watching and squeezes your brain until you can't imagine why Benigni bothered to put a happy face on it at all.

But, I hasten to add, you can't stop thinking about it. It's an unsettling film, but it entertains until the last credits roll. (With the notable exception of the last scene, which seems to have been tacked on with Krazy Glue under the guise of feel-good. Or to point out the irony in all its naked glory.) Now available on video, it's worth the rental price, and probably worth purchasing -- this is a film that you may not want to see, but in a way, its subject matter makes it an important film to see anyway, disturbing or not.

Life is Beautiful is a misnomer, an irony, a contradiction. It doesn't make sense in context of having seen the film.

Maybe that's the point.

[ by Elizabeth Badurina ]

Buy it from