Finally, a Holocaust comedy after all those depressing dramas. “Life is Beautiful” is an Italian film that was directed and co-written by Roberto Begnini. He also starred in it. Begnini loosely based the movie on the book In the End, I Beat Hitler by Rubino Romeo Salmoni. He also was inspired by his own father’s stories from WWII. He was in the Italian army and switched sides when his country went over to the Allies. Unfortunately, the elder Begnini was captured by the Germans and put in a labor camp. He would tell his kids humorous stories to distract them. The movie was a big hit and critically acclaimed. It won the Grand Prix at Cannes. It was nominated for six Academy Awards and won Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, Original Dramatic Score, and Actor. Begnini got the title from a phrase Leon Trotsky wrote in his journal the day he was assassinated.
The movie opens in Italy in 1939. Two guys in a car without brakes barge into a gathering to greet the king. This establishes the movies low-brow humor. One of the clowns is Guido Orefice (Begnini) who has come to town to get a job as a waiter in his uncle’s restaurant. He falls in love with his son’s elementary school teacher. She is engaged to the local rich asshole, so he is going to have to be creative. If pratfalls are your idea of creativity, then he is the man for you. Spoiler alert: the winning streak of charming buffoons over wealthy jerk continues. Years later, the Orefice family is living a beautiful life when lil’ ole WWII comes along. Because Guido and his son Giosue are Jewish, they are shipped to a concentration camp. Dora (Nicolletta Braschi – Roberto’s wife) volunteers to join them. He does not stop her! She is put in a different part of the camp. Guido sends her messages over the camp loudspeaker. He convinces his son that the concentration camp is the elaborate setting for a game. If his son does everything he says, he will earn points to win a tank. Shenanigans ensue. I bet you never thought you would hear the word “shenanigans” in a Holocaust movie review. It’s that kind of movie.
This is a really hard movie to judge. I am certainly not against black humor and it has its place in cinema. Obviously, it is unexpected in a Holocaust movie. Perhaps the time was right for it. God knows we have plenty of Holocaust movies that are depressing. But depressingly accurate in depicting the horrors of the camps. To his credit, Begnini took the approach that the movie would be like a fairy tale. He did not try to compete with the serious Holocaust films. The movie is best viewed as a fairy tale, otherwise you might gag a bit.
Since the movie is a dramedy, it is something of a roller coaster ride. Before it gets serious, the humor is head-shaking. Is Begnini’s shtick the current state of comedy in Italy? Since the film is a vehicle for Begnini, your enjoyment is directly related to your tolerance for his antics. He is the Italian Robin Williams so factor that in when you decide whether to watch the movie. To be honest, I am not a Williams fan so I was not enamored with Begnini’s performance. In this respect, I disagree with the Academy’s choice of him as Best Actor. Amazingly, he was only the second actor to direct himself to a Best Actor Oscar (the other was Laurence Olivier in “Hamlet”). Begnini beat out Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan” and Edward Norton for “American X”. How in Hell did that happen? Did Beatty/Dunaway read the envelope? I found his brand of hilarity set in a Holocaust situation to be jarring. Plus, it just is not funny under any circumstances. This is a problem for a movie that is more comedy than drama. It does not really show how bad the camp is. Begnini pulls his punches in this respect or the movie would have been even more whiplashing. But if you are in for a centesimo, why not be in for a lira? I suppose you would not make millions of lira if you took that bold approach.
Will “Life is Beautiful” crack my Best War Movies list? No, because it is my list and I don’t care what the critics or the Academy Awards have to say. I also reserve the right to opine that Roberto Begnini is not funny and this movie is a misfire. Is it too soon for a humorous Holocaust movie? It will always be too soon.
GRADE = C