Good parents can make up the wildest ideas to protect their children from harsh realities. Around seven years old, I was preparing for surgery, which included drawing some blood, in case I were to lose too much during the operation. That fact could have sent me into hysterics, imagine a small child being told the truth about mortality. So my dad told me that there were some vampires working in the hospital and they needed to take blood from the bigger, stronger kids to keep them away from the little, weaker kids. Suddenly, it was a noble task straight from my favorite monster movies. He might have even gotten the nurse to agree with him at some point, I don’t remember it too well. The point is, shielding kids from a sad truth is not uncommon, but I believe it takes a strong personality to make the kids really believe. That’s how Life is Beautiful works so well.
Our strong personality here is Guido (Roberto Benigni, who also directs), a friendly, charming, enthusiastic and goofy looking waiter in 1930’s Italy. We watch as he befriends and trades riddles with a German doctor (Horst Buchholz). Through a few accidents, he makes an enemy, who just happens to be engaged to the girl he has set his sights on. Continuing this very Charlie Chapin style, he spins some coincidences into moments to charm the lovely Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), and eventually run off with her on a green horse in the middle of her engagement party. It’s a very long first act, but it is very important to understand the sort of man Guido is, a quick thinking clown with a pure thirst for life and heart of gold.
Five years pass, then Guido and Dora have an adorable son, Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini), and own a small bookshop. They try to ignore the German occupation of Italy, but suddenly Dora comes home to Guido and Joshua missing. She finds that they are on a train headed toward a concentration camp, and though she is not a Jew and told she can go back home, she too boards the train to be with her family.
What Guido does for his son is amazing. Even before they get on the train, he is bringing some fantastic energy to spin this frightening event into something whimsical, to hide the truth from his son. He tells Joshua that everyone at the camp is part of a big game, where the first family to a thousand points will win a real tank. Guido even takes the chance of translating everything one of the Germans says into the rules for his son. Imagine how his whole story would have crumbled if someone really translated what was being said. To get these points they cannot cry, ask for their moms or snacks, and Joshua will have to hide every day. Guido even gets some of the men in the bunk to play along.
Many films about the Holocaust make sure to show us the horrors and heartbreaking true details. In Life is Beautiful, there are clues that we understand but Joshua may not, like the pile of clothes or why he cannot find any other children after a few days. Every time Joshua comes back with some new terrible detail he heard, Guido spins it around, saying it’s all part of the game and the others are only trying to scare him.
This may be the only film about the Holocaust that I could ever call sweet, charming and heartwarming. Some of the most important moments are Guido’s little ways of letting his wife know he and Joshua are alright, and they bring a little moment of happiness to the whole camp. Though we know the horrible truth, and everything isn’t sunshine and rainbows for us, seeing how Joshua is protected means everything.
“You’ve never ridden on a train, have you? They’re fantastic! Everybody stands up, close together, and there are no seats!”