“What kind of place is this? It’s beautiful: Pigeons fly, women fall from the sky! I’m moving here!”
When it comes to making the most of their 15 minutes of fame, I can’t think of anyone who got more in than Roberto Benigni. And I don’t mean he used it well and turned it into bigger, better things. I mean he got an entire career worth of public onion into his short window of mainstream attention. He went from unknown, to delightful oddity, to Academy Award winner, to over exposed annoyance, to high profile flop maker, back to relative main stream obscurity. And he did all of that with just one movie, Life is Beautiful. And I have to admit, I let that public opinion influence my own take on it.
I heard it existed, I thought it was a must see, I grew tired of Benigni and I wrote his movie off as a cheap novelty. That was all before it even got a theatrical release in Australia. But finally, that stank has worn off enough for me to actually come back around to being kind of intrigued by its existence. I figured that even if Life is Beautiful isn’t great, it’ll be an interesting time capsule about where the movie world was at in 1997, that it got so enamored by this little Italian fella and his little Italian movie.
It’s 1939 in Italy, and Guidio (Benigni) moves from the country to work in the city at his uncle’s (Giustino Durano as Eliseo) restaurant. On arrival, he meets local teacher Dora (Nicoletta Braschi) and is immediately infatuated. To use optimist to describe Guido would be an understatement. His glass isn’t half full, it’s over flowing as he finds joy and whimsy in everything. Even as his Jewishness makes him more and more of a target of the local fascists who see Hitler as an inspiration.
I won’t go into any more details, because Life Is Beautiful is structured in a unique way that means even the opening scenes contain things I wouldn’t want to spoil for anyone who’s never seen it before. But the first half manages to fit in a standard rom com in its entirety, hitting every beat and plot that a standard rom com usually needs twice as much time to do. Then, things turn much darker as the story works its way to 1943, when World War II was in full swing and the Fascists’ attitude towards Jews has gone way beyond your standard issue casual racism.
The character Guido is pretty similar to my description of Benigni in my intro to this review. He appears as this fun, flighty, optimistic curiosity. His quirky behavior is entertaining enough… For a little while. But it doesn’t take long before it all becomes a little too much, and Guido is more infuriating than charming. But once the story reaches its darkest moments, I was back on board with his playfulness. His acting and character only get more broad as the world around him becomes more grim. And it’s a juxtaposition that really worked for me.
Life Is Beautiful is sickly sweet, egregious in its attempts to pull on every heart string and blatant in its emotional manipulations. Basically, it’s everything I was scared it might be. But the surprising part is, I didn’t mind any of that stuff. It just seems too well intentioned for me to hate. And at the centre is Benigni’s performance, which always comes across as 100% genuine and innocent. Benigni and this movie may have been a little over exposed at the time, but watching it with almost 20 years between me and that overexposure, I was totally sucked in by its schmaltz and never felt bad about that.