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Life Is Beautiful  

Roberto Bengini's Life Is Beautiful is certainly one of the more unusual films I've seen. It attempts to find both humour and warmth in a subject which, on the surface, seems unworthy of it: the Holocaust of World War II. The fact that Bengini is able to find a glimmer is a tribute to his ambition, even if the film unavoidably paints over much of the pain.

The film, set in Italy, is about a waiter, Guido, played by Bengini, who has a dream of opening a bookshop. Of course, there is no shortage of problems for him, most notably the bureaucratic brick wall represented by the one who gives out the building permits. Through a number of accidental and typical slapstick events, Guido incites the man's anger, and for much of the first half must avoid his wrath. At the same time, Guido falls in love with a woman, a schoolteacher, and his attempts to fulfil this love are thwarted by an unexpected threat. It turns out that the woman has plans to marry the official whom Guido is trying to escape from. But, luckily for Guido, the woman finds much more appeal in the lively, humourous sincerity of Guido, and soon it is he who the woman decides to marry.
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It seems as if everything will be happy from here on in. But at this time society has changed. The Facists are now ruling with an iron fist, and Jews are ostracized. And one horrible day, huge numbers of Jews are rounded up, including Guido and his family, and sent off to concentration camps. The situation is understandably dire. But Guido, who is always an optimistic character, reveals vast amounts of courage and daring, as he concocts an outrageous fabrication, all in the hopes of protecting his young son from the psychological hardships. Guido tells the son that this is all a game, with first prize being a tank for the first person to get 1000 points. This aspect of the film is quite facinating, as this insistence on pretending this is a game allows Guido to successfully hide the kid from the Nazis, who are already rounding the children up to head to the gas chambers. While everyone else basically invites themselves to be slaughtered, Guido and his son devise ingenious ways to fool and decieve the Nazis.

The film has been criticised by detractors as tasteless, as we, supposedly, are expected to laugh at Bengini's charming antics and outrageous designs even as others are being shot, gassed, and experimented on in what we know now was the greatest tragedy in human history. Actually, the humour isn't tasteless, but painful, as the reason Bengini's character invents this charade for his son to spare him the pain he would otherwise feel, which is certainly a noble thing for a parent to do. Bengini, as well, keeps hope alive for himself, because, even in this situation, he has something to live for: the safety of his child. This is more than what could be said for the rest of the prisoners, who understandably feel helpless. Bengini's character is an individual like no other; he has an almost superhuman quality in that he very rarely lets himself appear vulnerable, or afraid of where he is.

Overall, this is a wonderful tale of courage and love, and certainly worth viewing. And since this is an Oscar winner, this will be more interesting for those who rarely take the time to view forigen films. This quite acessable film will certainly make you curious as to what else is beyond the reach of Hollywood, California.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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