Laughing in the face of adversity is the best way to triumph over it. This is a sentiment I share with Roberto Benigni, director of Life is Beautiful (La Vita è Bella) the only movie to ever make me laugh out loud and leave me with sad tears in my eyes.
The film has two parts to it. In the first part Benigni, who also co-wrote the script with Vincenzo Cerami, plays Guido, a waiter working for his uncle who owns a hotel in Italy. He keeps bumping (literally) into his principessa Dora (Nicoletta Braschi). By staging an elaborate (and humourous!) series of events which make it appear as if the Virgin Mary herself is cooperating with him, Guido rescues Dora from marrying the stodgy town clerk. Life appears to be going fairly well for Guido even though Mussolini has just signed a pact with Hitler to implement his Nazi policies with regards to Jews. Flash forward five years later and we see Guido owning a bookstore he manages with his wife and son Giosué. It's almost the end of World War II, but that makes the position of Jewish-Italians all the more precipitous. One day, the Germans come to take away Guido and his son. His wife, not being Jewish, chooses to go along.
Right from the start, Guido takes a huge risk by treating the whole exercise as a joke. He explains to his son that they've just bought tickets to take part in a contest to win a tank (not a toy one, but a real one, thought of which lights up Giosué's eyes) and proceeds to concoct an imaginative and humourous explanation for the happenings around, and to, them in the German concentration camp.
All of the things Guido asks Giosué to do are in the interest of saving Giosué. However, given Guido's personality depicted in the first half of the film, I don't think he could've acted differently even if wanted to. While the first part of the movie illustrates Benigni's talents as a slapstick comedian, some of the best humour is in the German camp. Here, Guido is not only funny to his son (and the audience) but he must also eke out humour in situations where people's lives are stake. We see Guido making a joke out of a German officer's instructions to the prisoners---a situation where a misunderstanding on the part of the prisoner could lead to their deaths.
Some may find this comparison sacrilegious, but Benigni reminds me of Jim Carrey in many respects. From his "performance" at the Oscars (climbing on chairs and rivalling Whoopi Goldberg in his one-liners), I assume Benigni very much lives his life the way he portrays Guido in Life is Beautiful, always cheerful, goofy, and smiling at and in the face of misfortune. Benigni's acting is terrific and believable. (As I write this, it's well-known that Life is Beautiful won the Oscar not only for Best Foreign Film, but Nicola Piovani won an Oscar for the Best Original Dramatic Score and Benigni won the Best Actor award.) The chemistry between Benigni and Braschi, who happens to Benigni's real-life wife, is excellent. The cinematography, the direction, and the pacing are all superb, except for the odd scene where Guido gets lost in the prison camp (which isn't that big) and stumbles across a pile of decaying corpses that have been through the gas showers. It is a jarring scene that simply does not fit in with the rest of the film.
The movie has been criticised as an exercise in holocaust revisionism. In my view, the fantasy Benigni creates (and it is a fantasy) is done primarily to enable us to laugh at one of the most terrible atrocities to occur in human history.
It's debatable how much children (or anyone) should be shielded from real-life horrors (I'm of the belief that it's generally better to know sooner than later), but in this fable, Guido's gamble (with a high risk) pays off. The emotional ending which made me cry is all the more powerful because up till the end, we do not know what is really going to happen. And given that most of the films I see comes out of Hollywood, I was shaking my head in disbelief long after the movie ended. This is the kind of a movie I've waited for a long time to be made and in my view deserved the Oscars for all the categories it was nominated for but didn't win. In so much as comparisons can be made, Life is Beautiful is a better picture than Shakespeare in Love and Benigni does a better job of direction than Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan.