Life Is Beautiful (1997)
October 13, 2019 8:44 PM - Subscribe

An Italian book seller of Jewish ancestry who lives in his own little fairy tale. His creative and happy life comes to an abrupt halt when his entire family is deported to a concentration camp during World War II. While locked up, he goes to great lengths to convince his son that the whole thing is just a game.
posted by DirtyOldTown (11 comments total)
I watched this in a high school history class. It made me WEEP and I don't think I could watch it again but I loved it, and the message it conveys. It makes me think of an anecdote from Man's Search for Meaning about a young woman who was dying in the same concentration camp with the author:

There is little to tell and it may sound as if I had invented it; but to me it seems like a poem. This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. "I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard," she told me. "In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously." Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, "This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness." Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. "I often talk to this tree," she said to me. I was startled and didn't quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. "Yes." What did it say to her? She answered, "It said to me, 'I am here — I am here — I am life, eternal life.'"
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:52 PM on October 14, 2019 [5 favorites]

There seems to have been a bit of a critical mass of hatred for this film since it's success at the oscars. This seems to have been at least in part driven by Roberto Benigni very enthusiastically accepting the oscar without, I dunno, being mournful because of his subject matter.

I've read some pretty weird takes on this film where they suggest that it's a comedy set during the holocaust, but it really, clearly isn't. It's a story about how a man whose joy was in making people including his own family laugh, tries to get by in the worst possible conditions. There is a very clear demarcation between the opening half, where we his behaviour is (hopefully) funny, and in the second half, where it is a desperate attempt to survive. I've honestly read takes where they think that a father trying to convince his child that the horrifying conditions they are in is a game is meant to be read as funny?

I have to admit I've only watched this film once; these kind of films are pretty difficult to encourage oneself to rewatch, but I remember thinking it was a terrific piece of cinema. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I thought it was great.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 12:39 AM on October 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

I couldn't buy the premise. It would not be possible to hide the Holocaust from a child in a concentration camp. And being unable to believe the film's central conceit prevented me from being on board for the entire film, as it felt too removed from the actual horror of the event to have anything meaningful to say about it.

Perhaps the Holocaust was not the subject of the film, which I would also take issue with. The subject of a Holocaust film must always be the Holocaust. It is too significant an event in the history of my people to be a backdrop to whatever other story you're trying to tell.
posted by maxsparber at 11:20 AM on October 15, 2019 [8 favorites]

I watched this film during my abroad semester in Germany. I remember, looking around, how significant it felt, to be sitting between a fellow student from Germany and another student from Russia, and me a Polish girl, all watching the film together.

Of course the premise was impossible. But the movie seemed to show something true, to what lengths a human being will go to show love to another human being. It was like watching a dream, or that final scene from Dancing in the dark. Of course it would not have happened like this in real life but it was not supposed to be seem this way.

One of the most memorable films of my life but I would never want to watch it again.
posted by M. at 1:41 PM on October 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Perhaps the Holocaust was not the subject of the film, which I would also take issue with.

I think that is really at the heart of what makes this movie so divisive. The ideal Benigni wanted to impart really did necessitate setting the film during the Holocaust, as that is the furthest possible extreme one could find to set against the belief that life is beautiful. It had to be humanity at its very worst to "prove" the strength of the counter value of persistent love even whenin the face of hell. That's the thing that makes it so powerful for people who appreciate the movie, but it also informs why others dislike it so.

To suggest the Holocaust is a weight that can be borne if one has sufficient love or will or whatever can be seen to diminish the reality of the event by using it as fictional foil that can be "overcome" in some sense, not literally of course, but spiritually. To say that, to make a fiction of it in the face of the actual horror of the event and the lives it touched, people whose experiences touch all aspects of humanity in it many faces, can be felt as placing the artist's imagined ideal over the actual varied responses of those who suffered. Using the holocaust for that kind of fiction can erode reality by making the unimaginable seem potentially bearable, which it can never be. The conflicting views on the movie seem to be between the ideals and reality and how they are prioritized by the viewer and what history they have had to choose. I personally have to side more with Max, even as I did enjoy the filmmaking and like Benigni well enough, I just think one shouldn't use the Holocaust as fiction in this fashion.

It's a rare artwork that can be a smash hit, win awards, and virtually end a filmmaker's career all at once.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:16 PM on October 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Pretty sure Pinocchio ended his career though.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 3:01 PM on October 17, 2019

Pinocchio on Rotten Tomatoes: 0%
posted by DirtyOldTown at 4:38 PM on October 17, 2019

Pinocchio was the knock out blow that a lot of critics were waiting to deliver after Life is Beautiful, where they used the failure of the latter movie as a weapon to attack Benigni's whole career and method. There's no doubt Pinocchio would have hurt Benigni's career, at least as a US draw, but the damage was greatly compounded by the lingering bad feelings some had over Life is Beautiful and Benigni's comic style as well.

That's why I'm greatly amused that Benigni, and director Matteo Garrone, made this movie. That's how you throw down the gauntlet over a career.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:41 PM on October 17, 2019

I did not like Life Is Beautiful. At all. Largely agree with maxsparber.
posted by kyrademon at 10:01 AM on October 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

As do I. I found this picture really odious and it pisses me off that people make excuses for it.
posted by holborne at 10:13 PM on October 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

This was Yet Another Depressing Holocaust Film I'd put off watching. Did not go into it expecting a comedy. Having now seen it, I'm surprised it did as well as it did in awards given the problems already described upthread.

Personally, I think where it goes off the rails is that Guido is never punished for his antics--until perhaps the end of the film. The "everything works out in the end" narrative the film has been pushing made me genuinely expect the film would end with Guido in a Nazi soldier uniform, having turned the tables offscreen. Dude wrecked a car, stole someone's fiancé, compulsively stole from a client, impersonated a fascist official, mocked a German concentration camp officer, hid his kid in a camp, and none of it caught up with him, while the consequences are heaped upon everyone around him. Guido isn't an optimist in spite of his suffering but seemingly in its absence and that seems to undo the requirements of a Holocaust film.
posted by pwnguin at 11:09 PM on August 13, 2023

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